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He Descended Into Hell?

As we think about this topic this month I thought it would be appropriate to write on a phrase that is often times misunderstood in the Apostles’ Creed. Last spring the 8th Grade class at Covenant Christian School asked me to come talk about what it means when we confess that Christ descended into hell. They had been reading Dante’s Inferno, which references such a descension. Perhaps you too have wondered what it means that Christ “descended into hell.” There is no Scripture that speaks of a literal descent into hell, so what are we to make of this? Should we confess this phrase or take it out as extra biblical? Let me give you some historical interpretations of this phrase, and why it is an important part of what we believe.  

  • Literal Descent

Some believe that between his death and resurrection Christ literally descended into heaven. They usually reference 2 Peter 3:19 “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”. This is a very difficult verse to interpret with varying interpretations to its meaning. But it does not say that Christ went literally to hell, nor do any other Scripture verses. Nor should we believe, as some do, that this was a part of his punishment or atonement. His death – not a descent into hell, was his atoning sacrifice.

  • Describes His Affliction & Death

John Calvin believed that the writers of the Apostles’ Creed were trying to describe the agony of the cross. That being the sin bearer upon the cross was a type of hell. Indeed the death of Jesus was hellish – physical agony and pain, along with bearing the wrath and curse of God. No person could (or would) be able to imagine what Christ went through. However the trouble with this type of interpretation is that it does not seem to fit the context of the Apostles’ Creed. The phrase “descended into hell” would essentially be repeating what was just said, namely “he was crucified, died, and buried”. Since the creed seems to have a brevity of words, why the reiteration? This interpretation doesn’t seem to fit the context of what the original authors were conveying.

  • Curse and Humiliation of Death

The last view is that his descent into hell describes the extent of his humiliation on earth. This interpretation I believe to be the correct one because it seems to fit the flow and context of the Apostles’ Creed, as well as the Biblical narrative of what Jesus came to do and accomplish. As you read the paragraph about Christ in the Apostles’ Creed you see the humiliation that he endured in his life. He was born of the Virgin Mary; he suffered under Pontius Pilate; he was crucified, died, and buried. All of these shows the extent of his humiliation. But then the authors add “he descended into hell”. Hell, or infernos in the Latin, is the translation of the Hebrew word Sheol in the Vulgate (Latin version of the Bible), written about the same time as the Apostles’ Creed. The Hebrew word Sheol means the place of the dead. So it seems the authors of the Apostles’ Creed  seem to be indicating is that not only did Jesus died, but he spent three days in the grave and the place of the dead. His suffering and humiliation brought him to the lowest of the low – the grave and the place of dead. The Westminster Larger Catechism seems to confirm this view when it says, “Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which has been otherwise expressed in these words, he descended into hell.” (Q&A #50).

If you have read this far you may be saying so what? Well here is the rich Gospel truth that we confess every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed. When we confess the humiliation and suffering of our Lord, we are confessing the extent our Lord went for our salvation. He descended not only to earth but below the earth – to the grave. Why? So that he could be exalted to the highest heaven, and with him us too. In fact all the blessing - the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection from the dead, and life everlasting, comes as a result of humbling himself to the point of death, even death upon the cross and remaining under that curse for a time. His suffering knew no limits, so that our joy and blessings would also know no limit.