[B22] Christ's Descent Into Hell

With respect to the whole article concerning the descent into hell, we should bear in mind the advice of the great reformer, and our confessions generally, to the effect that we should not give way to idle curiosity, or be led into vain speculation. This article cannot be comprehended by the reason and the five senses. “In such mysteries of faith we have only to believe and adhere to the Word.”

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22. Christ’s Descent Into Hell

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. — 1 Pet. 3:18—20.

For more than fifteen hundred years the Christian Church has been repeating this clause of the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into hell.” Most of us since early in life have been repeating these words frequently, many of us at least every Lord’s day. After all these years what do these words mean to us? Have we a fairly well defined idea of what they may mean? Let us remember that, here as elsewhere, there is little profit in the mere repeating of words. It must be granted, however, that here, more than on many another point, there is some excuse for a lack of clearness. The descent of Christ into hell is a doctrine more briefly treated in the Scriptures than any other one incorporated in the Creed. Another element making for confusion is the fact that with respect to this doctrine there are so many divergent opinions among men. May the Lord of light give to us His enlightening Spirit that we may rightly understand His Word, and prize His truth. To this end let us today make a devout study of the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell.

I. What Does The Bible Mean By This?

The logical point of departure in considering this subject is to find out what the Creed and the Bible mean when they speak of a descent into hell on the part of Christ.

There are those who think, and many of them, that the words, “He descended into hell” is but another way of stating the truth expressed in the words “Dead, and buried.” There are several reasons, however, which make this position, it seems to us, untenable. The first is found in the nature and structure of the Creed itself. The Apostles’ Creed is the briefest possible epitome of Gospel truth. So brief is it that only two fundamental points are touched on in the whole life of Christ, — His birth and His death. This brevity has been a source of objection on the part of not a few critics of the Creed. Now if these words, “He descended into hell,” are a development, or explanation, of the thought contained in the words “dead, and buried,” it is not only a very strange departure from the principle of brevity in accordance with which the whole Creed is constructed; but, worse, it introduces as an explanatory clause a statement not as clear by any means to the ordinary reader as the words it is supposed to explain. Still further, the clause “He descended into hell,” explained as but a differently expressed verbal equivalent of “dead, and buried,” by no means gives an adequate idea of the teaching of those Scripture passages which treat of Christ’s life during the interval between His burial and resurrection.

To get an adequate understanding of the doctrine of the descent into hell we must know what the Scriptures mean by the word hell itself. We have here a term which many would like, and some have resolved, to omit from the catalogue of theological terms; at least when considered as a place of punishment. However, this cannot be done without eliminating a considerable portion of God’s holy Word. As long as men want to hold to the sweet comfort, and derive the strength which comes from the Biblical teaching concerning heaven, they will have to be content to retain its teaching concerning hell. The Scriptures represent these two places as the opposite extremes, the opposite states of existence toward which all human life is gravitating. And any line of argument which will destroy the one will apply with equal force to the other. We believe God’s Word when it says there is such a place. Now, disentangled from all the rubbish of human opinion, what is the biblical meaning of the word hell? Taking its coloring from the nature of the place specifically known as hell, there are instances where the word means simply the extreme of human anguish, physical, mental, or spiritual; as when the Psalmist says:

“The pains of hell got hold upon me” (Ps. 116:3).

Sometimes the word is used in a wide sense, and means no more than the region of the dead in general. This is probably all that St. Peter had in mind when, on the day of Pentecost, he spoke to the multitude concerning Christ that His soul was not left in hell. When Jesus died His natural human soul took its flight into hades, the realm of the abode of disembodied spirits. Jesus had taken man’s place. All the experiences of those whose place He had taken were to be His own personal experiences. So when Jesus died His body went to the grave, His soul into the realm of the disembodied spirits. This for His soul, as the grave for His body, was the last step in Christ’s humiliation.

The locality, extent, appearance, and kindred questions concerning hell we shall not attempt to discuss. The Scriptures give us no certain data for doing so. But there is a specific sense in which the word hell is used in God’s Word; namely, as a state of existence, a condition of life the opposite of heaven; the place of abode of those who have willfully separated themselves from the life which is in God. The final stage and state in the lot of the saved and lost has not yet been reached. The public proclamation and confirmation of the condition has not yet been made. The body is not yet participating in it. But when death comes the choice has been made, the lot cast, and the condition fixed. This doctrine of the twofold state of those who have passed into death is strikingly and emphatically set forth in the record which tells of the rich man and Lazarus. It was into that part of hades which is the abode of the blessed, or Paradise, into which the soul of Jesus passed at His death, as He said on the cross.

This, however, is not what we understand by Christ’s descent into hell as it is set forth in the Creed, and in our text. According to this passage, which is the chief seat of the doctrine of Christ’s descent, Jesus, after His body had been quickened by the Divine Spirit, after His soul had come back to dwell in His resurrection body, went, under the guidance of the same Divine Spirit, went as the whole Divine-human person, into the whole realm of the dead.

II. Why Did Christ Descend Into Hell?

Let us now, in the second place, consider the purpose for which Christ Jesus descended into hell.

With respect to the whole article concerning the descent into hell, we should bear in mind the advice of the great reformer, and our confessions generally, to the effect that we should not give way to idle curiosity, or be led into vain speculation. This article cannot be comprehended by the reason and the five senses. “In such mysteries of faith we have only to believe and adhere to the Word.”

This doctrine concerning a hell is, and no doubt was intended to be, a disturbing element in human life. It is a lash, making fearful the unbelieving and godless; a goad pricking the consciences of the careless. We all need this to some extent. And there are those who can scarcely be touched by any other motive.

There is much said, by certain people, of the injustice of eternal punishment. What is all this but an impeachment of God’s character? Why do men rail against the doctrine of a hell unless they are afraid that they themselves, or somebody else, will be punished there innocently, or beyond their desert? Would God be God to allow such a thing to happen?

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” There will not be a soul in hell because God wants it there. There will never be a soul there that God would not have kept out if He had been allowed to do so.

In the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell, as the Bible represents it, and we understand it, there is nothing gloomy, nothing terrible; but just the reverse, both for Christ Himself, and for us his followers.

Let us approach the subject by clearing away what are evidently erroneous views. There are those who have understood that the words “He descended into hell” mean that Jesus went to the place of the lost to suffer the tortures of those confined there. Aepin, Calvin, and others clearly taught this. And it is probably because of the revulsion of feeling which this doctrine caused that some have been led to expunge the expression concerning the descent entirely from the Creed. One of the usual results of extremism is that the pendulum swings strongly in the opposite direction. That the above is not the meaning of the Scripture teaching on the subject is clear from a number of considerations. We do not mean to say that Christ did not endure the pangs of the condemned. The Scriptures clearly teach that Jesus endured the full equivalent of the punishment due us for our sins. “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.” But all this was endured during life, especially in the closing hours of His passion, more particularly still in Gethsemane, and on the cross. The grounds for maintaining this are as follows, — Jesus’ last word on the cross with respect to His work was, “It is finished.” His life-work was completed. The world was redeemed. Divine justice was satisfied. This being the case, there could be no demand for further suffering, no justice in it. Further, in speaking to the penitent thief, who was dying by His side on the cross, Jesus said: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Not in torment, but in the place of light and blessedness. This is confirmed by the final word of the dying Savior:

“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.

The soul-night which came over Jesus when the Father’s face was averted from Him, because He had been made sin for us, was past. With the Father’s face turned full upon Him again, it had become light at eventide. And the soul of Jesus took its flight from the weary, mangled body into the care and keeping of the loving heavenly Father, not into the torments of hell.

The church of Rome teaches that Christ’s descent into hell was for the purpose of delivering the souls of the pious who died before the completion of His redemptive work. This doctrine is based on the assumption that there was no real forgiveness of sins, no real salvation during the time of the Old Testament covenant. They hold that the souls of men passed then into a kind of negative state, void of both happiness and punishment. The reason they assign for this belief is that there were no sacraments for conveying the blessings of God during the old dispensation. But when Christ came and completed His work, He personally went into the realm where abode the faithful, but really unsaved, children of God of the former time, made His redemption effective in them, and led them into glory. This would be fine fiction if it did not deal with such serious matters, and invalidate such clear revelations of God Himself. There was salvation under the old covenant. Of course it was by faith in the Messiah to come. And there were means of grace in those olden days, as well as now. God’s Word is always the chief means of Grace; they had it. And they had Circumcision and the Passover as sacraments.

There are those who hold, and among them have been some of our own brethren, that the purpose of Christ’s descent to the abode of the imprisoned spirits was to preach to the heathen, who had never heard of the Gospel of the grace of God, and the provision for their salvation, and thus give them an opportunity of accepting it. This is a pious hope rather than a revelation. We know that God is going to deal lovingly, as well as justly, with all the children of men. He certainly will not condemn anyone who has not had a chance to be saved. But that Christ went to hades to bring the message of deliverance is not a matter of direct evidence. And the hope that this may once have been the case should not be allowed to become a ground of procrastination with anyone now.

How, then, do we understand the descent as to its purpose? From the brief statements of Scripture on the subject, our conception is that in Christ’s whole divine-human nature, after His quickening, He went to show Himself to the princes of darkness, and the spirits of all the wicked, as the mighty, victorious chieftain who has vanquished sin, death, and the devil. This seems to be very clearly the teaching of St. Paul, when he says of Christ: “And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it;” namely, in His death. This supplements the statement of St. Peter in our text. This simply tells that Christ, who had been quickened by the Spirit, by the same Spirit went and preached to the spirits in prison. In the former passage, St. Paul tells us what the subject of this preaching was, the proclamation of their defeat, of Christ’s victory over them.

The descent into hell, then, marks decisively the beginning of Christ’s exaltation; which reached its climax in the accession of the Divine-human Christ to the throne of sovereignty and glory. This doctrine is in every way full of comfort and strength for Christ’s disciples. It assures us that as Christ, our Lord, triumphed over all the snares and assaults of the devil; and not only so, but decisively defeated him: so shall we, through Christ, finally gloriously triumph over him.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

To request a printable copy [PDF] send an email to: editor@lutheranlibrary.org with the title of this post.

Luther's Small Catechism: Series B – The Apostles' Creed

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
  • Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0

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