Our church recites the Apostles’ Creed every other week. It’s a beautiful, ancient creed. I love its Trinitarian formula: God the Father is maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ, the begotten-Son, is redeemer. The Holy Spirit brings the saints together into one holy catholic church.
As beautiful and ancient as it is, many people are thrown off by one line which comes under the office of the Son. It says that after Christ had died and was buried, that “He descended into hell”.
Jesus descended into hell? What does that mean?
What usually comes to mind here is Christ dying and then going to the fires of hell to be further tormented by the devil. This imagery would reasonably detract many people. Is this what the creed really means by “he descended into hell”?
In this post I want to lay out the common historic understandings of this line. I will look at three views: The Reformed view, the Lutheran view, and the Roman Catholic view:
First, the Reformed churches have historically rejected any notion that Christ went to hell after his death and during his three days in the grave. Rather, the Reformed churches pose that Christ’s descent into hell refers to the anguish he experienced on the cross. Christ, being separated from the Father, bearing the sins of the world, experienced eternal torment for mankind on the cross.
The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, says it this way:
Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?
That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell
Christ has experienced hell that I might not. And of course this is true.
The Luther church, however, would disagree with this understanding of the creed. The Lutherans understand Christ’s descent into hell under the rubric of his victory over satan and demons.
Lutheran Henry Jacobs, in his Summary of Christian Doctrine, questions 39-43, says that “the Reformed Church regards ‘the descent into hell’ as a part of the humiliation; the Lutheran Church, as we shall see, regards it the first grade of the State of Exaltation”.
Jacobs classifies Christ’s descent into hell as part of his exaltation (i.e. victory over sin and death) as opposed to his humiliation (i.e. experience of wrath and the cross). How can this be so? Jacobs brings in 1 Peter 3:18-19 as proof that when Christ descended into hell, it was not to suffer, but rather to pronounce victory over the demonic spirits.
1 Peter 3:18-19 says,
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison
We simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with sublime and acute thoughts, as to how this occurred. (Formula of Concord, 643)
So, during the three days in the grave, Christ descended into hell to “destroy the power of hell”. This was on the basis that Christ had defeated sin and death.
The Roman Catholic church differs only slightly from the Lutheran position. The Catholic catechism says:
The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there
Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him (632-33)
The Catholic church affirms with the Lutherans that Jesus went into hell, or Sheol, or the realm of the dead, however one sees it. But he went there “not…to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just”. Meaning, Jesus went to release the Old Testament saints into the beatific vision. According to this view, the Old Testament faithful could not enter into the divine vision until justice had been satisfied — the cross did just that. And so Jesus went to Sheol to preach victory and to release the faithful to heaven.
The Catholic church provides 1 Peter 4:6 as proof of this: “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.
The catechism says:
The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.
It is important to note that the Lutheran church doesn’t deny that Christ released the faithful into the divine presence. Henry Jacobs explains that “we may regard it probable that the proclamation of victory announced to one class to their terror was made to another class, to their joy and triumph.” However, he prefaces that “we dare not think of those who departed in faith as until then ‘in prison.'” In other words, the Old Testaments saints may have been freed into the beatific vision, however, they were not in “prison” (1 Pet 3:19) as the demonic spirits were.
So these are the three main interpretations of Christ’s descent into hell. While I do affirm the Reformed position, that Christ experienced hell on the cross, I must admit that that position has weaknesses. What about Peter’s description of Christ’s descent? What about “preaching to the dead”? For this reason, I also affirm that Christ did descend into Sheol, or hell, to pronounce his victory over sin and death. This pronouncement, I presume, both condemned the demonic spirits, and redeemed the Old Testament saints. It was the last phase of Christ’s mission, after which he was resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father.