He Descended Into Hell

Tom J. Nettles
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
May/Jun 2002

hen we gather for worship on Sunday, many of us confess our faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed. The Creed's most puzzling statement has always been that our Lord "descended into hell." What does this mean? Is it true? Isn't it enough simply to affirm the observable facts of Christ's passion, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucifixion, death, and burial? In Church history, this article of the creed has received many interpretations; but, most straightforwardly, it attempts to represent briefly the depths of Christ's suffering and humiliation during both his earthly ministry and his death.

Christ's redemptive suffering remains close to the Christian consciousness. It was, especially, part of the Church fathers' reflections on Christ's significance. For instance, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome emphasized Christ's humiliation. He quotes Isaiah 53:1-12 and then explains that "[T]his is he who bears our sins and suffers pain for our sakes…. The chastisement that resulted in our peace fell upon him…. In his humiliation justice was denied him…. And the Lord desires to take away the torment of his soul, … because his soul was delivered to death and he was reckoned as one of the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many, and because of their sins he was delivered up."

Ignatius of Loyola also used Christ's torments to assert, "[T]here is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord." Likewise, the Epistle to Diognetus reminds us that our wages-namely, "punishment and death"-came to the one who was a "ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, 'the just for the unjust,' the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal." It reinforces the idea of this exchange between Christ and us with beautiful biblical images: "For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!"

Such reflections help to explain the original intent of the assertion, "He descended into hell." The central doctrinal truth articulated in this phrase is that the Son of God in his incarnation experienced the full range of suffering necessary for our redemption. In his humanity, and even though he himself never personally sinned, Jesus Christ embraced life and suffered death-including the pain of hell itself-as the "wages of sin," so that he might redeem sinful human beings.

As the reformer John Calvin notes, the Apostles' Creed is deliberately pithy in asserting the profound truths revealed in Scripture. Knowing this warrants our dismissal of such an ambiguous idea as Christ descending spatially into hell itself. If it is maintained that Christ's descent was literal or geographical, then irremediable issues of theology and biblical interpretation arise. For instance, issues expressed by questions such as, Wasn't the cross a sufficient punishment for sin or did Christ also have to go to hell to satisfy divine justice? What about Christ's body? Did it descend or was it simply his soul that descended into hell? If it was only his soul, then does that mean that the punishment of the body is somehow less important than the punishment of the soul?

If, however, we maintain that Christ's descent into hell is simply his literally experiencing God's wrath at the time when he was made a curse for us (see Gal. 3:13), then Scripture abundantly supports this claim and these questions disappear. Consequently, we should recite this phrase as a statement about the propitiatory nature of Christ's suffering. As Calvin explains, "Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death," because his suffering had to be greater than any human could inflict in order to "interpose between us and God's anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment." "He descended into hell" is, then, a way of stating how heavy was the "weight of divine vengeance" on Christ. In this experience he engaged, "as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death." Thus, we should not hesitate to say that Christ descended into hell since, as Calvin puts it, "[H]e endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God." Calvin even said, "[S]hould any still scruple to give it admission into the Creed," it must be made plain that the place which this article "holds in a summary of our redemption is so important, that the omission of it greatly detracts from the benefit of Christ's death."

Some people object that if this phrase is meant to show the severity of Christ's earthly passion, then it should not follow the phrase "he was buried." But since it follows that phrase, the creed must mean that Christ descended literally into hell after burial. Yet such a descent subsequent to his death would render Christ's words on the cross unintelligible. Those words- "Today you will be with me in paradise," "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," "It is finished," "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit"-each individually and collectively require us to understand that Christ finished his propitiatory work in enduring the Father's wrath while he hung on the cross. While buried, he experienced separation of his spirit from his body (see 2 Cor. 5:2-8), living consciously in his Father's presence with the saints until his resurrection. His descent into hell had already taken place as he experienced in his whole person-body and soul-the merciless infliction of wrath from the omnipotent hand of the Father's justice. So as Francis Turretin, one of the greatest Reformed theologians, noted, when Christ cried at last, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," he "wished to proclaim that nothing more remained to be done by him, both as to freeing others and as to undergoing new torments. But as the body was about to enjoy its repose in the sepulcher, so the soul also was about to rest from all its labors and be bathed in the greatest joys."

The Creed's Perspectival Ordering

This concern about the sequence of the phrases in the Apostles' Creed is useful, however, for it helps us to realize that the creed's articles are ordered not sequentially but perspectivally. As Calvin explains helpfully, what Christ endured in the sight of man finally gave way to "the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price-that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man." Question 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism underscores Calvin by affirming that "my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell." As Zacharius Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, notes, "[I]t is proper that the severe torments and anguish of soul (which were the heaviest part of his sufferings) should not be unnoticed in the Creed." But if the phrase "He descended into hell" does not refer to those sufferings, then they are not noticed, for the creed's preceding phrases "speak only of the external sufferings of the body."

Although Jesus did not experience the gnawing worm of conscience in the same way that unforgiven sinners will, the effect of his experience in his conscience was infinitely more severe. Our consciences accuse or excuse us based on our knowledge of God's righteous requirements and of the punishments justly demanded for their violation. Unredeemed sinners, aware either by general or special revelation of their culpability, may experience pangs of conscience now and will experience its undying condemnation in hell.

Because the pain of conscience is not strictly an active infliction of God's wrath, it is not part of the hell that Jesus had to experience in his reconciling work. Yet, his soul's turmoil in the garden of Gethsemane far transcended what any single sinner experiences either here or hereafter. For Christ was perfectly aware of the just requirements of God's law. His knowledge of the punishment that violations of it demand was also exactly commensurate with that punishment's infinite and eternal dimensions. So as he, in his human spirit, became increasingly aware of the severity of his coming passion, he said, "My soul is exceedly sorrowful, even unto death." He who knew and loved everything that was his Father's will, found his knowledge of what awaited him so horrific that his life fluids seeped through his pores, coagulating on the ground. Our Lord desperately sought any just way around this unimaginable punishment and yet finally discerned that nothing else could restore sinners to favor with God. And so he submitted with the words, "My Father, if this cup cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done" (Matt. 26:42, nasb).

We know that this severe test was not a part of our Lord's experience of abandonment to God's wrath because an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him during it (Luke 22:43). It arose, then, from Jesus' conscience as he sensed the judgment that he would endure when he bore our sins in his own body on the tree.

Hell entered Jesus' soul in the hours when God the Father's "not sparing his own son" seemed utterly interminable and unbearable (see Rom. 8:32). The words "not sparing" indicate that all mercy was past and judgment was fully come (see 2 Pet. 2:4, 5). No angel ministered to him then. Each sin of all the elect in all ages received its full recompense (see Heb. 2:2) as our Lord "gave himself for our transgressions" (Gal. 1:4; see Rom. 4:25). And when he said, "It is finished!," his descent into hell was past.

In the end, this article of the Apostles' Creed answers more questions than it raises. For it offers believers several insights as we try to understand our salvation in relation to Christ's suffering and death. As Reformed writer, Herman Witsius suggests, it teaches us to shake off carnal security for "nowhere are the malignity of sin, and the severity of God's great wrath against it, more clearly discerned, than in our Lord's descent into hell." But it also encourages us: "[B]ecause he descended into hell, the principal gate of heaven stands wide open to us; and the lower his descent, the higher in consequence, is the glory which he has merited for us."

1 In writing this article, Professor Nettles has quoted from Michael Holmes's edition of J. B. Lightfoot's The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House (2nd Edition), 1990); Calvin's Institutes, Francis Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992); Zacharias Ursinus's Commentary of the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992); and Herman Witsius's commentary, The Apostles' Creed in Two Volumes (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1993)
Wednesday, June 6th 2007

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