“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.

Why are we here?

I am starting a catechism class for the young people in our church, and I am using the Larger Catechism to do so. So here are some of the notes I have gleaned from the three commentaries on the Larger Catechism (Ridgeley, Vos, and Morecraft), as well as the commentaries on the Shorter Catechism that I own (Whyte, Watson, Whitecross, Williamson, Vincent, Fisher, Flavel, and Boston). Page numbers are to the most recent editions of these works. Question 1 of the WLC addresses the question, “Why are we here?” That is not all it says, of course, as the quotes below will well illustrate. Hopefully I will be able to keep on posting my findings as I go along.

The whole question: Ridgeley says that the first part is the means that leads us to the second part. Morecraft says that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves (115). He says “Happiness is a by-product, not a goal” (116). To begin with this question puts us on the highest possible plane (116). If we begin with “how do we become saved,” then we are in danger of believing that God exists for our benefit (116). Morecraft notices that this question presupposes the revelation of the Bible (118), since only God can reveal to us our ultimate purpose in life. Morecraft also says that “Our ultimate purpose with reference to God is to glorify Him. Our ultimate purpose with reference to ourselves is to enjoy God” (130). Vos notes that no evolutionist could possibly agree with this question (3). Evolution results in there being no meaning in life whatsoever, except what we make for ourselves. Whyte notes that if there is a chief end, then there are subordinate ends (14). Of course, all the lesser ends should serve the great end. Vincent says “And when God shall be most fully enjoyed by the saints in heaven, he will be most highly glorified” (15). Flavel asks the question, “what then is to be thought of those men, who being wholly intent upon inferior things, forget and neglect their principal end? A. they are dead whilst they live” (141). Boston says much the same: “There is an inseparable connexion betwixt the two, as between the end and the means; so that no person who does not glorify God here, shall ever enjoy him hereafter” (15).

The first part of the answer: Ridgeley says, “That there is a great difference between God’s glorifying himself and our glorifying him” (4). The difference is expressed: “God glorifies himself by furnishing us with matter for praise; we glorify him when we offer praise, or give unto him the glory due to him name” (4). Ridgeley also notes that we glorify God when we confess our sins, when we believe and trust in him, when we have a fervent zeal for his honor, when we improve our talents, when we walk humbly, thankfully, and cheerfully before God, when we are heavenly-minded, and when we submit fully to His will (5). We cannot always think about the glory of God in every second. Ridgeley notices this, and has a great analogy: “As every step the traveller takes is towards his journey’s end, though this may not be every moment in his thoughts, so the less important actions of life should be subservient to those which are of greater consequence, and in which the honour of God and religion is most intimately concerned” (6). Flavel says, “[I]t is the duty and wisdom of every Christian to renounce, deny, and forsake all inferior interests and enjoyments, when they come in competition with the glory of God, and our enjoyment of him” (142). Morecraft adds witnessing to the list of how we specifically honor God (121). He says, “When we truly honor God, we receive the greatest happiness from God a human being can experience: we are honored and glorified by God himself” (121). Watson adds to the list “by standing up for his truths” (15); “suffering for God” (16). Charles Spurgeon once said, “God can honour you, even though nobody else sees that he does it, in such a way that you will be more contented with that honor than if your name and fame were blazoned forth before the whole world” (Morecraft, 123). An illustration: “Lady Glenorchy, in her diary, relates how she was seized with a fever which threatened her life, ‘during the course of which,’ she says, ‘the first question of the Assembly’s Catechism was brought to my mind—“What is the chief end of man?” as if some one had asked it. When I considered the answer to it—“To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever”—I was struck with shame and confusion. I found I had never sought to glorify God in my life, nor had I any idea of what was meant by enjoying him for ever. Death and judgment were set before me; my past sins came to my remembrance; I saw no way to escape the punishment due unto them, nor had I the least glimmering hope of obtaining the pardon of them through the righteousness of another.’ From this unhappy state she was shortly after delivered, by believing on the Lord Jesus as the only Saviour of guilty” (Whitecross, p. 7).

Why must we glorify God? Watson answers: 1. God gave us our being; 2. God made all things for his own glory (Proverbs 16:4); 3. The glory of God has intrinsic value and excellence; 4. Creatures below us give glory to God, “and do we think to sit rent free”? (9); 5. all our hopes hang upon him.

The second part of the answer: Ridgeley notes that in order to enjoy him, we must belong to him in covenant (6). It is imperfect in this life, perfect in heaven (6-7). However, a world of comfort is in that word “forever.” Some people, however, think of God as the great cosmic kill-joy, bent on preventing us from having any fun. God invented fun. The enjoyment consists in union and communion with God (Boston, 14).