Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jesus' Descent into Hell

"He descended into hell". This article of the Apostles' Creed has taken many who are unaccustomed to the creed by surprise. "Jesus? In hell? What was he doing there? And where is that in the Bible?" While the meaning of this article has been a matter of debate, it has generally been accepted as an important element of the faith, not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but by historic Protestantism as well.

In Reformed theology, this descent has been explained in two ways - that Jesus suffered the pains of hell or that Jesus abode under the power of death until the third day. These ways are complementary. I believe both are true, although the second way is the agreed upon understanding of the creed in my denomination (and in all denominations that hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms).

1. Jesus Suffered the Pains of Hell

The first way was defended by John Calvin, who noted that this descent into hell was "of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption" (Institutes, 2.16.8). Calvin taught that the creed, after describing the aspect of Christ's suffering that was visible to man (that he "was crucified, dead, and buried"), then described the aspect that was invisible, that Jesus felt the weight of God's wrath and judgment: "the Creed appropriately adds 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" (Institutes, 2.16.10). In this way, Jesus did not go to the location of hell, but he suffered the pains of hell. Not only did he feel physical pain, but as he said, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death" (Matt. 26:38), so much that "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) as he experienced the just wrath of God that was due to us. This led him to loudly cry out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). As one hymn puts it, "the deepest stroke that pierced Him was the stroke that Justice gave." The Heidelberg Catechism of the continental Reformed churches (German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, etc.) followed this interpretation by saying:
Question 44. Why is there added, "he descended into hell"?
Answer: That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, 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, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
2. Jesus Continued in the State of the Dead, under the Power of Death

The second way is articulated in the Westminster Larger Catechism of the British Reformed churches (Presbyterians, Puritans).
Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?
A. 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 hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
The view of the Westminster standards gives attention to how this article of the creed is based on Acts 2:24-32, which quotes Psalm 16:10. There Peter, speaking of Jesus, says,
"Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him '... Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption' ... He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses." (Acts 2:24-25a, 27, 31-32, KJV)
It is important here to realize that the English word "hell" has been used to translate two different Greek words found in the Bible: "Gehenna" (γέεννα, the place of final judgment, what we usually think of when we use the term "hell") and "Hades" (ᾍδης, which can have a broader reference to death or the state of the dead, equivalent to the Hebrew word "Sheol"). The Westminster standards take into account that Acts 2:24-32 speaks of Hades, not Gehenna. Most modern translations makes this clear by leaving the word untranslated: "'For you will not abandon my soul to Hades' ... he was not abandoned to Hades" (Acts 2:27, 31, ESV). In line with this, many modern translations of the Apostles' Creed translate this article of the creed as "he descended to the dead."

Therefore, the Larger Catechism notes that the Bible does speak about the time after Jesus' death and before his resurrection, and that it speaks of this time as part of his humiliation. Jesus was dead. His soul was unnaturally separated from his body and he dwelt with other departed souls. In addition to Acts 2:24-32, Romans 6:9 also speaks of how death had dominion over Jesus until he rose from the dead.

We might even go beyond this creedal statement and say that even though it was part of his humiliation to be under the power of death, yet during this time Jesus's soul dwelt in paradise with his people (Luke 23:43), having committed his spirit to God (Luke 23:46). Notice, though, that the catechism states what seems to be clear from Scripture while not being as specific about some of the more debatable details, such as the specific identity of "paradise." The Gospel of Luke refers to the "bosom of Abraham" in 16:22 and "paradise" in 23:43. Was this the same as heaven? Or is that only the case following Christ's resurrection? In any case, these details are not the point of the catechism's answer. 


Like I mentioned earlier, I believe both of these perspectives teach us something important and can be expressed by this article of the creed. Jesus bore the griefs and sorrows which we ought to have suffered in hell. Not only did he experience physical pain, but he experienced that tremendous mental pain and torment of being judged by God, and he did that for us. Jesus also truly laid down his life, giving himself up to the unnatural and fearful power of death. Yet, he could not be held by it - rather, he exhausted its power and overcame it by rising from the dead, taking away its victory over his people. As Hebrews 2:14–15 teaches, Jesus took on human nature, "that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." Jesus did this work for us, so let us gratefully confess it and find in it comfort and confidence.

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