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Did Jesus Descend into Hell (Part I)?

Posted: July 30, 2012 by James Harvey

Yesterday I intended to address this question as we considered John 19:31-42, a passage which includes the account of Jesus burial by Joseph of Arimathea.  When Jesus died on the cross, what happened to him?  Did Jesus go to hell after he died?  Lots of folks are confused on this point.  Today we will consider how the Apostles Creed either helps or hurts our understanding of the question depending on how well we have been taught the atoning work of Christ. The tradition version of the Apostles' Creed has the line, "he was crucified, died and was buried.  He descended into hell."  This is the version that we say together at our church.  However, the traditional version of the Creed is actually not the oldest version of the Creed.  The line, "He descended into hell," does not appear until the late fourth century (A.D. 390) in the history of the church.  It appears in a rendition of the Creed by Rufinus.   And, the phrase only appears in Rufinus' Greek version of the Creed.  He does not preserve it in the Roman version.  Why?  It is clear from the context of Rufinus writing that he does not intend the phrase to mean more than "he descended into the grave."  In Greek, Hades could refer to the grave, or to hell as a place of punishment.  It would seem that Rufinus left the phrase out of his Roman version to avoid the confusion.  So, Wayne Grudem summarizes:

This means, therefore, that until A.D. 650 no version of the Creed included this phrase with the intention of saying that Christ "descended into hell"--the only version to include the phrase before A.D. 650 gives it a different meaning.  At this point one wonders if the term apostolic can in any sense be applied to this phrase, or if it really has a rightful place in a creed whose title claims for itself descent from the earliest apostles of Christ" (Systematic Theology, 1994, p. 587).

For this reason, you may have been to a church that, though using the traditional form of the Creed, felt compelled to place an asterisk by this phrase to clarify that Jesus did not go to hell after he died.  First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Jackson, MS does this.  Following John Calvin, these churches want to retain the phrase while making it clear that Christ did not descend into hell physically or spiritually after his death.  Rather, Christ bore the full wrath of hell on the cross for all those who were saved by faith in the promises prior to his death and all those who would be saved after his death.  Christ bore hell on the cross.  As Calvin puts it:

We must seek a sure explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ's descent into hell.  The explanation given to us in God's Word is not only holy and pious, but also full of wonderful consolation.  If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual.  No--it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment.  For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.  A little while ago we referred to the prophets's statement that "the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him," "he was wounded for our transgressions," by the Father, "he was bruised for our infirmities"[(Is. 53:5ff.].  By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge--submitting himself even as the accused--to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained.  All--with this one exception: "He could not be held by the pangs of death" [Acts 2:24ff].  No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked!  Those who--on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it--say that the order is reversed in this way are making a trifling and ridiculous objection.  The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man (Institutes, 2.16.10; Vol. 1, pp. 515-16 Battles' edition.)

Four things to note from Calvin here:

  1. Calvin had been ridiculed for taking this position by Sebastian Castellio.  16h century rhetoric enters into this discussion when he says it is a "trifling and ridiculous objection" to challenge the place where this phrase occurs in the creed.
  2. Calvin's main point is excellent: Christ did not simply die an ordinary death on the cross.  He underwent "the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgement."  He bore the wrath of hell as our substitute.
  3. Calvin suggests that the Creed does not intend to given a chronological order of events when it comes to phrase "he descended into hell."  Instead, Calvin says that this is to give us the spiritual dimension of the death of Christ: "that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God."
  4. Calvin emphasizes that the greater price that Christ paid on the cross was the price that we cannot see with the naked eye, "suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man."  A good word for those who reduce the cross down to a horrible death at the hands of men, while failing to see that it was the stroke that Justice gave which was most horrible and terrifying to Christ, and should be most horrible and terrifying to us if we don't know Christ as our substitute.

Calvin was no iconoclast when it came to the history of the church.  He sought to preserve that which was redeemable theologically from the catholic tradition whenever possible.  Calvin finds in this phrase a helpful unpacking of the death of Christ on the cross.  I agree with Calvin, so long as people understand the creed in the manner in which he explains it. I have not seen, however, historical evidence that the 7th century church understood the phrase in manner that Calvin advocates.   (If someone else has that evidence please send it along.)  

I have sympathies with those who have removed the phrase "he descended into hell" from their recitation of the Creed.  Jesus did not go to hell after he died on the Christ.  And, this phrase is a late addition to the Creed.  Much of the Creed reads naturally in the order of redemptive history.   So, the person confessing faith with the Creed is not to be faulted for assuming that "he descended into hell" is the next redemptive historical event in the ministry of Christ.   Indeed, in order for matters to be clear they will have had to have been taught this truth, either right before confessing their faith (which can be cumbersome week after week) or in some other setting (communicants class, new members seminar, etc.).  Parents need to be clear on this for themselves and instruct their children.  Pastors and elders need to consider where they are making this clear for the flock in the teaching ministry of the church.  If we are using the Creed regularly in worship, Sessions (elder boards) should consider whether the statement needs to be clarified, both as a reminder to the faithful and to avoid confusion for those who are visiting the congregation for worship.

Tomorrow I will look at 1st Peter 3:19, the main passage of Scripture marshaled to support Christ's literal descent into hell after he died.  For now, let's be thankful that Christ bore hell on the cross as our substitute.  If we take a few moments to let His cross work sink in and to thank Him for it, other matters troubling our minds today may well recede into the background while we sing in our hearts, "What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul.  What wondrous love is the, O my soul."