“He Descended into Hell”

posted by R. Fowler White

It’s an understatement to say that the last phrase of Article 4 of the Apostles’ Creed—He descended into hell—has generated a lot of controversy. Because its appearance in the Creed came later than its other articles and because its meaning is open to question, some advocate for removing it from the Creed’s publication or, at the very least, for excluding it from the Creed’s public recitation. Those opinions deserve our attention, but they are not conclusive. For our purposes here we’ll take our point of departure from J. A. MacCulloch’s work, The Harrowing of Hell (1930). He provides a fair and reasonable basis for the article’s acceptance for the church’s continued consideration and recitation as follows: “Although the confessional use of the Descent doctrine was only sporadic and occasional before the eighth century, on the other hand the doctrine itself was mentioned repeatedly by the Fathers and in the religious literature of the early centuries.” So it remains appropriate for us to look more closely at the interpretation of the Creed’s words He descended into hell.

Even with repeated mention of the Descent, there remains no consensus on its interpretation. Early on, the received text of the Creed’s Descent clause was typically taken as a simple declaration that Christ, having humbled Himself to be crucified, dead, and buried, had also been consigned to the common ignominious place of the dead, namely, the grave (as distinguished from the place of suffering-beyond-the-grave, namely, hell). As time moved on, however, various other views of the Descent arose. Some believed that after His death Christ’s disembodied soul went to hell in order to complete what was lacking in His suffering on the cross. Others affirmed that His soul went to the place of waiting for disembodied souls (aka limbus patrum) in order to facilitate the transport of the souls of pre-Christ saints to heaven. Still others believed that Christ’s soul went to hell in order to achieve and announce His victory over it.

Strikingly, despite their variety, common to these views is the belief that between His death and His resurrection Christ’s disembodied soul relocated to a place other than and in addition to the heavenly paradise of God to which He referred on the cross (Luke 23:43, 46; cf. Matt 27:50). Furthermore, as we look into the attempts to justify this belief, we realize that basically they involve imposing dubious interpretations of Eph 4:8-10 and 1 Pet 3:18-20 onto the supposed chronology and theology of events related to Christ’s soul between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Suffice it to say here that neither Eph 4:8-10 nor 1 Pet 3:18-20 refers to a relocation of Christ’s soul to hell. To the contrary, the Ephesians text affirms His descent from heaven to earth for His incarnation, while the First Peter passage contemplates His ascension (not His descent), in which was proclaimed His victories over sin, death, and all the fallen angelic host. In short, Scripture provides no witness to the relocation of Christ’s soul after His death to any place other than the paradise of God in heaven. In fact, the Creed itself seems to point the way to a better understanding of its Descent clause. That clue appears when we notice the likeness between the second article and the words dealing with Christ’s suffering. Even as the second article presents distinguishable perspectives on Christ’s person in the two phrases His only Son and our Lord, so the words about His suffering present distinguishable perspectives in the two phrases was crucified, dead, and buried and He descended into hell. We can elaborate briefly by looking first to Scripture and then to the Westminster and Heidelberg catechisms.

Turning to the Prophets and Apostles, we find that they vividly narrate the incarnate Son’s suffering in both soul and body from Gethsemane to the grave. For example, Isaiah, cited by Peter (1 Pet 2:22-25), prophesied expressly about the anguish of soul and body that would arise in the Lord’s Servant as He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa 53:4), was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (53:5), endured our chastisement (53:5), and bore the iniquities and sin of many (53:11-12). Isaiah saw that, despite His innocence, the Servant would be stricken for the transgression of the Lord’s people, enduring even the degradation of being cut off from the land of the living (53:8) and swallowed up into the belly of the grave (53:9). Indeed, the Prophet discerned that deepest misery would be His because it was the will of the Lord to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and because the Lord imputed to Him the iniquity of us all (53:6). Isaiah thus envisioned the Lord’s righteous Servant voluntarily subjecting Himself to be for His many seed their guilt offering, their sin-bearing substitute, their surety (53:10-12). Fittingly, we find Matthew reporting Jesus’ words to His disciples in Gethsemane: “My soul is very sorrowful even to death.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Climactically, Matthew records Jesus’ dying words as those from David’s prophetic psalm about God’s royal Son who had put Himself in harm’s way for His people: About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1; cf. Heb 5:7).

Reading such words, we have to ask ourselves: what is Jesus’ lament if not the incarnate Son’s disclosure of the otherwise indiscernible truth that, on the tree (Deut 21:23), He had become a curse for us (Gal 3:13), that for our sake God had made Him to be sin who knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21)? Is His lament something other than His testimony to the gravest torment of a soul subjected to divine judgment, a torment compounding the sheer agony in a body brutalized by human hands? Are those words anything but His witness to the hellish suffering that He underwent in accord with divine foreordination and prophecy, while drinking the cup of God’s holy wrath against us sinners (Matt 26:39, 42) and bearing and feeling the crushing weight of God’s just anger against our iniquities imputed to Him? Reading this sampling of what the Prophets and Apostles tell us about Christ’s suffering, we realize that it is not the case that between His death and His resurrection His soul relocated to hell. Rather it is the case that, in God’s reckoning, when He laid our iniquities on His incarnate Son, He effectively relocated hell onto Christ Himself such that from Gethsemane to the grave His humiliation for sinners reached its nadir in both soul and body.

Compelled by Scripture texts like those above, we appreciate the help offered for our understanding of the Descent clause in the Reformed catechisms of Heidelberg and Westminster. Heidelberg instructs us why the Creed adds the clause He descended into hell in these words: “To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment” (Q & A 44). In a complementary fashion, Westminster takes us back to the earliest interpretation of the Creed’s most contested clause. After expounding Christ’s humiliation in His death in the Larger Catechism Q & A 49, we read in Q & A 50 that His “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.” Taken together, these catechisms assist us to see in the Descent clause what Ursinus suggested in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (p. 232): “the descent into hell in the Creed follows the burial of Christ, not because it was accomplished after his burial; but because it is an explanation of what precedes concerning his passion, death, and burial, lest something should be detracted from these.” In that light, many will find good reason to include and recite the words of the Descent clause. In them we confess that the benefits of Christ’s suffering for us sinners extend from the visible to the invisible, even from the least extreme to the most extreme torments, pains, anguish, and ignominy of both soul and body. Certainly, we recognize too with Olevianus (see his A Firm Foundation, p. 71) that “the further Christ humbled Himself for us in all His anguish, and the more dearly He paid for our salvation, the more firm our trust in the love of God and in the satisfaction of Jesus Christ becomes.”

We reflect on Article 5 of the Creed here.

19 Comments

  1. Ron said,

    June 5, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    Crucified, died, buried, and descended seems pretty sequential to me. No intelligible reading should interpret descended as prior to buried.

  2. rfwhite said,

    June 6, 2022 at 9:36 am

    Ron: perhaps you’re right. If burial is included in the Descent, as at least the WLC affirms, then it seems we have to reassess.

  3. Ron said,

    June 6, 2022 at 10:18 am

    “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.”

    Why not read: “which has been otherwise expressed… [as] descended into hell” as simply referring to “continuing in the state of the dead…under the power of death” at the exclusion of being buried?

    In other words:
    1. Crucified
    2. Being buried (after death)
    3. Continuing in the state of the dead in descending…

  4. rfwhite said,

    June 7, 2022 at 10:15 am

    Ron: your proposal is plausible, but from what I’ve read, commentators on the WLC generally take the referent of “which” to be to all three constituent elements mentioned in the preceding phrases. In that case, to be explicit, being buried is included with continuing in the state of death and being under the power of death until the third day. As you may well know, it’s not uncommon for interpreters of the WLC and the Creed to connect the Creed’s Lat with the Heb and the Gk terms for the grave or the place of the dead. In that light, being buried is quite literally being lowered into the grave, and so “descended” gets conceptually linked to “being lowered.” For a fuller review of the history of interpretation of the Descent clause, Daniel Hyde of Oceanside URCNA has a helpful article published in The Confessional Presbyterian (vol. 3 [2007], pp. 104-117) entitled, “In Defense of the Descendit: A Confessional Response to Contemporary Critics of Christ’s Descent into Hell.”

  5. Ron said,

    June 7, 2022 at 11:22 am

    That’s just silly. (Not you, the strained interpretation.) To say descended is all encompassing conflates the propitiatory work of the cross with Christ’s burial. It even suggests that Sheol entailed suffering. Christ suffered on the cross, not in the grave. Crucified, died, buried and descended are distinct. Christ let captivity captive being raised from where he descended. :)

  6. rfwhite said,

    June 7, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Ron: perhaps better clarity can be found in Hyde’s article than in my brief comments.

  7. Ron said,

    June 7, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    Thanks.

    When I recite the creed it needs to make sense:

    Crucified
    Dead
    Buried
    Descended
    Rose
    Ascended

    Sequentially makes sense… to mess with descended is bizarro. :)

  8. rfwhite said,

    June 7, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    Ron: if you’d like, I can send you a PDF of the article offline.

  9. Ron said,

    June 7, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    It’ll only frustrate me.

  10. Ron said,

    June 7, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    But sure, pls do.

  11. Reed Here said,

    June 7, 2022 at 4:37 pm

    For early church fathers on descent, see Jeff Hamm’s article. Interesting considerations.

  12. Reed Here said,

    June 7, 2022 at 4:37 pm

    And by all means, lets frustrate Ron. ;)

  13. JK Novinger said,

    June 28, 2022 at 11:22 am

    The WCF and Heidlelberg largely reflect the views of Calvin. You might read the book by Dr. Samuel D. Renihan, entitled “CRUX, MORS, INFERI” for an alternate perspective.

  14. rfwhite said,

    June 28, 2022 at 11:35 am

    JK: Agreed that Heidelberg reflects Calvin. Not so much WLC. Still, appreciate the reminder about Renihan’s book. Had seen references to it, but lacked access to it. Hope to pick it up in time.

  15. Patricia Both said,

    June 28, 2022 at 11:42 am

    What about Jesus statement to the thief on the cross next to Him, “This day you will be with Me in Paradise.”

  16. rfwhite said,

    June 28, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    PB: Thanks for stopping by and asking your question. I take it that Jesus was telling the thief that between His death and His resurrection His disembodied soul would join the thief’s disembodied soul in the heavenly paradise of God (Luke 23:43, 46; cf. Matt 27:50).

  17. JK Novinger said,

    June 28, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    The WLC Question 50: 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. This is in line with Calvin’s view (i.e., no descent beyond the grave).

  18. rfwhite said,

    June 28, 2022 at 3:00 pm

    17 JK: we agree that, in Calvin’s view, there was no descent beyond the grave. For Calvin, the descent was in His death; for WLC, the descent was after His death, but, as you point out, not beyond the grave.

  19. July 7, 2022 at 10:26 am

    […] We consider the last phrase of Article 4 in the Creed here. […]


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