ABC Extra – The Descent Into Hell

October 11, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we continued our “Credo!” series with a look at the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus, based on this line from the Apostles’ Creed: “Christ descended into hell.  The third day He rose again from the dead.”  The fact that Christ “rose again from the dead” is the linchpin of our faith.  Indeed, the apostle Paul says it is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3).  Without the resurrection, our “faith is futile” (1 Corinthians 15:17).  Thus, in ABC, I spent a great deal of time defending the resurrection’s historicity against skeptics would try to undermine this cornerstone of Christian doctrine.

Blessedly, most Christians believe in Christ’s resurrection.  And they appreciate its centrality to our faith.   Thus, Christians proudly confess, “The third day He rose again from the dead.”  What many Christians do not understand, however, is the line that comes before this: “Christ descended into hell.”  In fact, the most common question I receive concerning the Apostles’ Creed is, “Does the Bible really teach that Christ descended into hell?”  And, if so, “Where does the Bible teach this?”  Though I touched on it in ABC, I wanted to take a slightly more in-depth look at the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell in today’s blog.

The line, “He descended into hell,” is a relatively late addition to the Apostles’ Creed.  It first appears as part of the Symbol of Sirmium in 359 and reads, “Christ died, and descended to the underworld, and regulated things there, whom the gatekeepers of hell saw and shuddered.”  It first appears in the Apostles’ Creed in 570.  However, just because it appears in the Creed at a late date does not mean it does not have an early origin.  Consider, for instance, these quotes, from Irenaeus (c. 180) and Tertullian (c. 200):

It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.27.2)

But it was for this purpose, say they, that Christ descended into hell, that we might not ourselves have to descend thither.  (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 55)

Clearly, the church fathers had no problem with the notion that Christ descended into hell.  Nevertheless, because of its late incorporation into the Creed, the phrase, “He descended into hell,” has caused much controversy among Christians.  Indeed, some even go so far as refusing to speak this line when they recite the Creed.  For those who do speak this line, there are multiple interpretations as to what this line means.

Some interpret this line simply as meaning that Christ descended into the grave, that is, He was buried and truly dead.  The Greek of the Creed reads, “Christ descended into ta katotata,” meaning, “the lowest.”  These interpreters take this phrase simply to mean not the lowest place of hell, but the low place of a grave in the ground.  Roman Catholic interpreters believe that Christ did indeed descend into hell in the traditional sense, but did so to free virtuous people who had gone before Him, but nevertheless could not be saved because they had been born before His advent.  The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church explains: “In His human soul united to His divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before Him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 637).

Finally, it is probably best to understand Christ’s descent into hell as it is explained in 1 Peter 3:18-19: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.”  The phrase “spirits in prison” is often taken to refer to the eternal prison of hell.  As I mentioned in ABC, the Greek word for “preached” is kerysso, a word that was used in ancient Greek games to declare the victor of a contest.  Thus, when Christ descended into hell, He did not do so to free the virtuous who had come before Him, for they had already received their salvation through faith in the promise of a coming Messiah (cf. Romans 4:3-8, 18-25).  Rather, He descended into hell to kerysso Himself the victor over sin, death, and the devil.  The descent into hell is Christ’s victory tour, for through the cross, He has conquered all things wicked.  And this is good news!

At Jesus’ empty tomb, the angels sing, “Christ has risen” (Luke 24:6)!  Perhaps it is appropriate to add as well, “Christ has descended!”  For His descent gives a reason for us to celebrate and for hell to shudder.  For Christ’s descent and resurrection, finally, point to the same promise:  Christ has conquered the cross and has secured for us eternal life.  Praise be to the One who descended and resurrected!

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