I have received a number of questions to the question box that I was not expecting, which is much of the fun – questions about things like the church calendar and the cremation of dead bodies. There were, however, other questions I was expecting and have received. Tonight I am going to deal with one of these, which reads, “In the Apostles’ Creed, why do we say of Jesus, ‘He descended into hell?’”
First of all, let me congratulate the person who asked this question, because we always want to worship intelligently. It certainly should bother us to publicly affirm things when we aren’t sure we believe them or don’t understand. When it comes to things that are said in church without being understood, “He descended into hell,” surely ascends to near the top of the list. Many other people have been saying this in church for years and have not asked, so good job with this question. Perhaps later someone will ask why we say we believe in the holy catholic church!
In the Apostles’ Creed we affirm together that Jesus was “crucified, dead and buried,” and then “descended into hell,” before “on the third day he rose from the dead.” The first thing we want to say about this is that it deals with the time between Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday (or on Thursday as an alternative view has it) and Sunday morning when He arose. Jesus went somewhere during this time and this answer affirms that it was to hell that he went.
The original languages help quite a lot in this case. The place where Jesus went after death in Hebrew is called “Sheol;” in Greek it is “Hades.” Both of those terms are used for the place where dead souls were said to go. This is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that Jesus’ humiliation consisted of, among other things, receiving “the wrath of God and the cursed death of the cross, in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time” (Q 27). The Larger Catechism, with its larger answer, puts it, “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of death, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in the words, He descended into hell.” The main proof text for these answers is Psalm 16:10, along with its New Testament citation in Acts 2:24-27, 31, where Peter preaches the Pentecost sermon partly from this text. In Ps. 16:10, David says, “you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Peter says in Acts 2:31, “Seeing what was ahead, he (David) spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.” In Ps. 16, the word “grave” is “Sheol,” and in Acts 2:31, it is “Hades.”
Therefore, when we say, “He descended into hell,” we are simply recalling that Jesus came under the power of death, and went to the place of the dead until His resurrection. Hell, in that terminology, is not the place of final judgment, but the place of all the dead awaiting judgment. He went to the place of the dead, being under the power of death until His resurrection. Romans 6:9 says, “Since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” Logically, then, death once did have mastery over Jesus, and that would be during the time He descended into hell.
At this point, many people complain of archaic language and formulations that require lengthy explanations. Shouldn’t we have a new, modern, contemporary version of the Apostles’ Creed that changes the language to make it easier? My answer to that is, “No!” It is far better for us to get into the habit of asking questions and becoming educated about the history of our faith and the formulations of earlier generations, than it is for us to arrogantly package everything in bite-size meals that fit our appetites. I for one, would rather have an ancient creed that makes me think about my faith, than a contemporary McCreed that makes everything a happy meal for our child-like minds.
Let me anticipate another question that follows from this. This question is that it seems the Old Testament has a different view of the state of the souls of the redeemed than the New Testament does. The Old Testament seems to see the dead going down into Sheol or Hades, along with the unredeemed, to await the coming of the Lord. The New Testament, on the other hand, speaks of the souls of saved persons being “with the Lord.” My answer to that question is that, yes, it does seem that way.
In the Old Testament, and even during the life of Christ, the dead are presented in Hades. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus says, “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Lk. 16:22-23). This whole scene takes place in hell, that is, in Hades. On one side of hell, as it were, is paradise, where Abraham and Lazarus are. On the other side, beyond a great chasm, hell is really hell, and that is where the once greedy rich man now is. This also seems to agree with what Jesus said to the thief on the nearby cross who believed in Him: “Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”(Lk. 23:43). Presumably, then, Jesus went to hell, proclaiming his victory to those given over for damnation, while actually staying in the paradise precincts.
All of that is quite different from the situation set forth after the resurrection and ascension of Christ in the New Testament epistles. In 2 Cor. 5:7-8, for instance, Paul speaks positively about Christian death, saying, “We are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” It seems that after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the souls of His own are now in heaven – which is not what He said to the thief on the Cross, nor what the Old Testament says of believers. Perhaps, this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote in Ephesians 4:7, “”When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” After this, in the New Testament, hell is a place of punishment and final condemnation, a place to which neither Christ nor His people will ever go.
I feel that I am on the precipice of speculation and want to avoid going further than Scripture will take me. As Calvin said, “Where God makes an end of teaching, let us make an end of learning.” One thing, however, we can affirm with zeal, is that after His death and burial, Jesus descended into hell. And we can also say, as Michael Horton writes in his book on the Apostles’ Creed, “His hell gained our heaven; his curse secured our blessing; his incalculable grief brought us immeasurable joy.”1 Therefore, let us say it with conviction and with joy: “He descended into hell.”
1 Michael S. Horton, We Believe, Dallas: Word, 1999. pp. 101-102
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