He Descended Into Hell

He Descended Into Hell

Have you ever wondered what is meant by this little four word clause in the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into Hell?” When Christ died on the cross his body went into the grave, his spirit into the hands of the Father, and his suffering was over (Luke 23:43, 46). This raises questions, however, concerning the article “He descended into hell.” What does this mean? In fact, some Christians choose not to recite this phrase, and various traditions have omitted it altogether. So what are we to think about this somewhat mysterious and enigmatic creedal statement?

The phrase descendit ad inferna [tr. descended into hell] has been a part of most readings of the Apostles’ Creed since the mid fourth century. Indeed, these words occurred in the synods of Sirmium (359), Nice (359), and Constantinople (360), and from there spread into most renderings of the Creed. Nevertheless, since the early centuries of the church, various interpretations of this phrase have been held.

The Roman Catholic position was solidified at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). They determined that “He descended into hell” meant that after Christ died His body went into the grave and His soul into hell. He did not, however, enter hell in order to undergo more suffering. Rather, He descended into hell as a victorious Savior and King, heralding his truth, proclaiming victory, subduing the devil and his minions, and freeing Old Covenant believers. According to the Catholic Church, Christ did not free Old Covenant believers from suffering, but from a state of limbo where the beatific vision and glory of God had been withheld.

Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church held that Christ liberated all those who were dwelling in purgatory and for whom, up until his death, was no access to heaven. The Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church possessed a similar position, espousing that Christ, in his spirit, descended into hell to rescue the Old Covenant people of God, along with the thief on the cross, and usher them into paradise. Of course, most poor interpretations of this little four word phrase were based on a flawed view of Acts 2:27, Ephesians 4:9, and I Peter 3:18-20.

The interpretations of “He descended into Hell” by the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church were rejected by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers. Nevertheless, there remained widespread opinion among the Reformers over what the phrase meant. Martin Luther (1483-1546) stressed that the matter was not clear. Luther’s followers interpreted it to mean that Christ, both body and soul, went into hell and subdued it, and shattered the power of the devil. In addition, Christ’s proclamation of victory over death and hell was not evangelistic but legal. Christ had won, and the evil realm of Satan was doomed to everlasting judgment.

Some Reformers took the phrase “he descended into hell” to encompass the entire state of Christ’s humiliation, from birth to death. Others, such as Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza (Calvin’s successor), viewed this phrase as simply a further description of Christ’s burial, that is, that His body descended into “Hades” or the lower parts of the earth, and had nothing to do with an actual descent into the place of torment. Still others, such men as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, and William Perkins believed the article to mean that Christ’s death and the power of His redemption was not just felt among the living but also among the lower regions, namely, among the dead. As you see, each of these positions leaves room for mystery.

The final position that I would like to mention is the position which I believe to be the most accurate of all the Protestant positions. It is, incidentally, the position of John Calvin (1509-1564) and Zacharius Ursinus (1534-1583; co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism, 1562). In Calvin’s magisterial summation of the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation entitled The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he has a section on the phrase, “descended into hell.” From the outset, Calvin clearly states that we should not remove this important phrase from the Apostles’ Creed. Indeed, he begins by saying that “we ought not to omit [from the creed] his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption … a place must be given to it, as it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter” (Institutes II.XVI.8). Seeing that Calvin did not want to discard the phrase, as some were inclined to do, we must ask the question, what did he believe the controversial phrase to mean?

Calvin believed the phrase “he descended into hell” expressed mainly the spiritual suffering that took place when Christ bore the sins of the elect and was the recipient of God’s judgment and wrath in their stead. The French Reformer states:

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 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’ (Isa. 53:5). 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. (Institutes II.XVI.10)

If, as Calvin states, the phrase at hand refers mainly to Christ’s spiritual suffering and agony as a righteous sin / wrath-bearer, why then is it placed after the phrase “and he was buried,” and not before? Calvin responds:

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 very 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.” (II.XVI.10)

According to Calvin, then, the words “he descended into hell” is a summary statement referring to all of Christ’s redemptive sufferings; in particular, the fact that Christ went through a literal hell when He was alienated from His Father because our sin was laid upon Him. Indeed, Jesus “descended into hell” when He was made sin for us (II Corinthians 5:21) and was, as a result, alienated from the love and fellowship of His Father, receiving from God the punishment that our sins deserve (Isaiah 53; Mark 15:34). Christ “descended into hell” and truly experienced separation from God. Why did he do this? In order to save sinners like you and me from the wrath to come, and to provide us with deep comfort throughout life’s thorny trials.

The Heidelberg Catechism (1562) expresses this same truth in Q/A #44:

Why does the Creed add, “He descended into hell?

To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

Members and regular attenders of Christ Church, when we confess together the words of the historic Apostles’ Creed, let us think upon the “unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul” that Christ suffered in our stead. As we do, may our hearts swell with love for God and devotion to his holy Word, always keeping at the forefront of our minds the price he paid to secure our redemption. For “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb, without blemish or spot” (I Peter 1:18, 19).