Christ’s Descent Into Hell

A pastor friend of mine and I were discussing the meaning of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, stimulated by Ligon Duncan’s recent article on the subject. Duncan helpfully lists out a number of options for its meaning:

  • That it refers to the spiritual agony Christ felt on the cross. This is the meaning put forth by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 44) and held by John Calvin (Institutes 2.16.8-10). Duncan rejects this as the historic intent of the phrase since it comes after the burial of Christ in the creed.
  • That it refers to Christ descending into hell and freeing Old Testament saints from captivity and bringing them with him to heaven. The idea here is that Sheol/Hades/Abraham’s Bosom all refer in various ways to the abode of the dead in general, with the dead being sorted into hell and heaven only after the redemptive-historical work of Christ. Calvin strongly rejected this view, but modern Reformed thinkers like J. I. Packer and Sinclair Ferguson teach a modified version of it.
  • That Christ was providing a second chance to the damned to repent, which Duncan, correctly, rejects.
  • Duncan emphatically ruled out the possibility that Jesus was paying for sins by suffering in hell, a view common to the Word of Faith movement.
  • That it refers to the fact that Jesus really, truly died and continued in the state of death. Duncan accurately states that this is both the intent of the creed, and also that it is the view that best fits with scripture. This is the view taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 50).

Interestingly, Duncan doesn’t mention the historic Lutheran view that Christ descended into hell in victory, smashing the power of the devil (e.g. Formula of Concord, IX), though this view does overlap a bit with the idea that Christ in his death freed the Old Testament saints. Duncan is very concerned to affirm that Jesus experienced true death and did so as part of the church’s redemption. A key text in this discussion is Acts 2:25-28, where Peter at Pentecost cites Psalm 16:8-11 to affirm that God would not abandon Christ’s soul “to Hades” (“Sheol” in the Psalm). Duncan, like many before him, recognizes that Sheol and Hades, though often called hell, often represent the state of being dead in general.  To confess that Jesus descended into hell is then to confess that he was in Sheol/Hades, which is death.

And there’s good reason to believe is the intent of the Apostles’ Creed. In Athanasius’ On Synods, the church father is arguing for the validity of the original Nicene Creed contra the Arians, and cites a number of other common creeds used throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, most of which mimic the form of the incipient Apostles’ Creed. For instance, in §30, Athanasius says that the church at its synod at Seleucia composed a creed which confessed, “[That Christ] was crucified and dead and buried and descended to the parts below the earth; at whom hades itself shuddered: who also rose from the dead on the third day…(emphasis added).” This is similar to §8, from the church council of Ariminum, which professed, “[Jesus] was crucified, and died and descended into the parts beneath the earth, and regulated the things there…(emphasis added).” These both correspond neatly to “he descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed, which indicates that the idea of Christ’s descent into hell is about the remaining under the power of death throughout his burial.

However, I think Duncan overstates his case on the limitations of the clause’s significance. He rejects the view of Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism in favor of the WLC, but the WLC doesn’t preclude the possibility that the Apostles’ Creed means more than that Jesus truly died, nor does it eliminate the possibility that Jesus suffered the anguishes of hell upon the cross. It merely requires belief that “he descended into hell” includes the affirmation of Christ remaining under the power of death. (Similarly, though beyond the scope of this post, you can reject that “he descended into hell” refers to Christ freeing the Old Testament saints from hell without rejecting that such an idea is biblical.)

What Duncan seems to overlook is what death is. Death is not simply the cessation of physical life, but total estrangement from God with all that comes from loss of communion with him. Hell is the totality of death: suffering the eternal reward of choosing sinful finitude over the holy infinite. Christ died, and he entered into all that death truly is on behalf of his people. This is precisely what Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism are driving at: Christ descended into hell by fully entering into death, which is suffering in death the anguishes of estrangement and judgment from God so that we do not have to. Zacharias Ursinus, author of the Heidelberg Catechism, makes this point at length in his commentary (page 421ff). There Ursinus points out that Christ’s soul was commended to God on the cross (“into your hands I commit my spirit”; “today you will be with me in Paradise”) and so Christ’s soul did not spiritually descend into hell, Christ’s body did not physically descend into hell, and that Christ according to his divinity is omnipresent and so could not descend (i.e. move) anywhere. However, Christ in his total humanity needed to suffer for his people what they deserved, including in his soul, and therefore experienced in his human soul the anguishes of hell upon the cross.

Peter’s citation of Psalm 16 at Pentecost places Christ’s soul in Sheol/Hades alongside bodily corruption, which gives weight to this idea that the death Jesus experienced for people includes not only the bodily decomposition of physical death, but the loss of communion with God in the spiritual death brought to bear in hell. Duncan organizes his argument along the lines of intent leading to meaning, and such an approach rules out the view Calvin and Ursinus. There is no doubt that their perspective was not the intent of the Apostles’ Creed in its formulation. However, the full meaning of phrases intended to capture biblical teaching is not limited to the scope of its authors’ imaginations, but the pressing of that teaching to its necessary conclusion.

Now, both of the citations from Athanasius indicated that in his descent, Jesus acted upon the powers of hell in some way: “at whom hades itself shuddered” and “regulated the things there [in hades].” The confession of Ariminum continued on to say, “[Jesus,] Whom the gate-keepers of hell saw and shuddered”. The confession cited Job 38:17 for this statement, which is the text cited by Athanasius in Against the Arians (§56) when he describes the work of Christ in relation to his descent into hell. Job 38:17 in the LXX (used by Athanasius) reads, “Again, do the gates of death open to you out of fear, and did the gatekeepers of Hades (ᾅδου) cower when they saw you?” The Hebrew runs “Have to you the gates of death been revealed, or have you seen the doors of shadow of death?” “Shadow of death” is צַלְמָוֶת, which is more poetically ambiguous than Hades. What Athanasius and the church father do when they encounter this passage is take the rhetorical question (No, Job, only God has gone before the gates of hell) and apply it to Christ, the true answer of God’s question. Jesus, not Job, is the one who has seen the gates of hades.

The LXX is probably wrong in having the gates seeing rather than being seen, which does effect some of the exegesis of Ariminum and Athanasius, but the idea is still that it is God who confronts the gates of hell. The interpretation of Athanasius and his contemporaries lends support to the Lutheran view of Christ’s descent into hell. Though the exact phrase appears intended to communicate the fullness of Christ’s death, the church fathers viewed that fullness as including the triumph over the power of death. The Lutheran debate on the clause has centered around whether Christ’s descent is part of his humiliation (the view of the WLC) or exaltation. The argument for exaltation is that Christ in his resurrection triumphed over the powers of sin and death (which includes the power of hell) by entering into death and not being held by it. Christ’s descent into hell is his descent into the power of hell and emerging victorious in the resurrection. How did Christ disarm and triumph over the rulers of sin (Col  2:15)? By entering into the power of sin at the cross and conquering it in his resurrection. Christ descended into hell by entering into its power on his people’s behalf on the cross, and in his victory the powers of hell shuddered.