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He descended to hell?

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The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest statements of Christian belief and one that is used throughout the world by churches of various denominational affiliation. If you don’t know it, you can watch this video made of it at Faith Church. While it is well-known to Christians, there are parts of it that many Christians do not understand.1 The phrase, “he descended to hell” is probably the least-understood or most confusing phrase in the creed (perhaps that’s why it was my line in the video linked above!). Some churches omit this phrase when reciting the creed because it is so confusing and because it is missing in some early versions of the creed. However, because it has been in the creed as it has been recited for many centuries, there seems to be something lost in removing it. In fact, John Calvin notes that it is “of no small moment in bringing about redemption”  and that “if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.” If we are going to say it, then it would be good to understand it! Those who have pondered the meaning of this phrase have come up with a number of different possibilities worth exploring, both what they mean and why they are important.

Perhaps the most common impression that people have when they read this phrase is that Jesus went down to hell, the place of eternal punishment, even spending the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday there. During this time, Jesus announced redemption and released the faithful who died before he came so that they could go to paradise. This story is found in an apocryphal (a later writing not really written by the apostles or early followers of Jesus) writing known as the Gospel of Nicodemus, which contains something known as the Acts of Pilate (likely written in the 3rd century), but it is unclear if it comes from Scripture. There are a number of problems with this view that Jesus went into hell between his death and resurrection, such as Jesus telling the thief on the cross that “today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), implying that the thief and Jesus were going to the same place upon death. In addition, Jesus gives his spirit to the Father on the cross (Luke 23:46), which would not be true if he then went to hell. Jesus did not need to go to hell to complete his work of salvation, as on the cross he declares, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Finally, the idea that Jesus had to go down to hell to bring Old Testament saints out of it seems to ignore the fact that Jews at the time believed that believers in God were in God’s presence at death, with nothing to indicate otherwise (Luke 16:26).

Passages often viewed as reflecting a descent to hell, such as Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6, also do not necessarily teach this view when examined more closely. Ephesians 4 speaks about Jesus descending from heaven to earth (not to hell), and 1 Peter 4:6 points to those who are now dead hearing the gospel when they were alive. The closest that a passage comes to supporting this view is 1 Peter 3:18-20, which I will admit is not the easiest passage to understand. It talks about Jesus preaching to spirits imprisoned who were disobedient at the time of Noah. This might mean that Jesus speaks to them at the time of Noah through the Spirit (as Augustine and others maintained) — or that he preached to them after his death. That said, note that it highlights that Jesus preached not to all the dead but to “spirits in prison,” which seem to reflects an angelic rebellion that occurred right before the flood (Genesis 6:1-4) that led to angels being imprisoned (see 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6). Such proclamation would be an announcement of Jesus’s victory to fallen angels, not humans — and nothing is mentioned of a release of the godly from a holding places. The announcement of Jesus here is of good news of his victory in the spiritual world, similar to what we see in Colossians 2:15. That can be comforting to know, that Jesus is victorious.

Another way that some Christians have interpreted this phrase is to refer to the fact that Jesus died, with some churches reciting that Jesus “descended to the dead.” There are many places in the Bible where “hell” has this meaning of the grave rather than a place of punishment. Therefore, the idea would be that Jesus was dead and that because he was dead, he has conquered death for us; death no longer has its grip on us. A problem some have found with this idea is that it comes after, “died and buried,” and thus seem to be redundant — in addition to being less clear than “died and buried” (so why would it be added!).

The Reformed tradition has another explanation of the meaning of Jesus’s descent into hell, found in Q and A 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism (one of our church’s statements of belief). This phrase refers to Jesus experiencing hell for us on the cross, as he was separated from and forsaken by God as sinners are in hell — the Father turned his face away from Jesus and darkness descended as Jesus experienced God’s wrath poured out on him. The phrase refers to how Jesus, in his life and death, suffered as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, that he was “smitten by God, and afflicted. … was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”  (53:4-5). It comes after the description of his life and death as a summary of all that he did for us, giving us a spiritual understanding of his death. This explanation reflects what we find in Scripture and I think it has great value for us — a value that I think you can find even if you hold to one of the other interpretations of the phrase.

Therefore, when we say “descended to hell,” we should remember that he suffered the agony and anguish of hell for us on the cross. That might not sound comforting, but because Jesus experienced it, we do not have to, which means, as the Catechism teaches us, that the descent to hell “assure[s] me during attacks of the deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord … has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment” — because Jesus experienced this on the cross.

When we recite the creed, we often just think of abstract truths, but we need to remember that these truths are important and real for those of us who believe; I believe and it comforts me. Jesus descended into hell, showing that he is victorious and that I am forgiven.

1 If you want to learn more about the meaning and significance of each phrase, a good place to go is the Heidelberg Catechism Q and A 23-58, which walks through each and every phrase and its value for Christians. Kevin DeYoung’s book The Good News We Almost Forgot walks through the Heidelberg Catechism as a whole, including these questions on the Apostles’ Creed.

Questions about Bible or theology, e-mail them to Pastor Brian atTheology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe to the blog and get its weekly updates by clicking here and filling out the info on the right side.

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