Did Christ Descend Into Hell?

A few weeks ago, my grandmother surprised me with a question: Did Christ, as it says in the Apostle’s Creed, actually descend into hell? She had been listening to a Christian radio program where the hosts had apparently said that Jesus had not, and that it should be removed from the Creed. I had never heard that before; I told her, when in doubt, I would stick with the Creed.

But I became curious. It does seem odd, and no specific Scriptural explanation came to my mind. So I decided to research the question — and there is quite a difference of opinion on the matter.

First, the Creed. Depending on the translation, here is how it goes:

I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born from the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen. [Emphasis added]

It was originally thought that the Creed was actually developed by the apostles of Christ, hence the name. Scholars are now agreed that the Creed developed over time, with elements of it around in the period right after Christ’s death and continuing to evolve until the eighth century. The particular article in question was not added until long after the rest of the Creed had been put together — it wasn’t solidified in the Creed until the seventh century, though it was found in scattered versions as early as the fourth century. Partly for this reason, some cast doubt on the historical, spiritual, and Scriptural validity of Christ’s supposed descension into hell.

At one Christian college, some years ago, not one of the 12 scholars of the Bible and theology believed in the validity of Jesus’s descent into hell. The theologian Douglas Moo argues, “Perhaps our best guess is that Jesus was in the presence of the Father on the Saturday — he tells the thief on the cross that he would be together with him in paradise that day.”

The best critic of this aspect of the Creed is probably Wayne Grudem, the theologian and author of a huge and influential Systematic Theology. His argument: 1) The phrase does not appear in any recognized form of the Creed until the seventh century, and is thought to have meant that Christ was simply buried, making it hardly “apostolic”; 2) the verses usually given as a Scriptural basis for the phrase are unconvincing; 3) there is actually Biblical opposition to the article: Jesus’s cry, “It is finished” suggests that his deed on our behalf was completely accomplished on the cross — no descent into hell was required. “The single argument in its favor seems to be the fact that it has been around for so long,” Grudem argues. “But an old mistake is still a mistake, and as long as it has been around there has been confusion and disagreement over its meaning.” For Grudem, the phrase should be dropped from the Creed.

However, the Creed still has its defenders. Some argue that Jesus went to hell to free those saints who had died before Jesus’ death, liberating those who remained faithful during Old Testament times. Others argue that Jesus descended to hell to preach to those who resided there, giving them one last shot to accept his offer of salvation. Adherents of the Westminster Larger Catechism use the phrase to explain that “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.”

Most, it seems, argue that Christ descended to hell in our place, as part of the substitutionary atoning work he accomplished on our behalf. “Since it was fitting for Christ to die in order to deliver us from death,” wrote Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, “so it was fitting for him to descend into hell in order to deliver us also from going down into hell.” Those who recited the Heidelberg Catechism explained the article’s addition by saying, “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.”

John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, gave a particularly forceful defense of the article’s inclusion into the Apostle’s Creed. Anticipating Grudem’s argument that the phrase was initially understood as a restatement of the truth that Christ died and was buried, Calvin argued that it would have made no sense for the authors and popularizers of the Creed to have pointlessly repeated themselves. Why say that Christ was crucified, dead, and buried, and then say that, in effect, he was dead and buried again? “How careless it would have been,” argued Calvin, “when something not at all difficult in itself has been stated with clear and easy words, to indicate it again in words that obscure rather than clarify it!” He took the true meaning of the phrase “he descended into hell” to be similar to what many have thought: that it is meant to explain the fullness of what Christ accomplished for us on our behalf. “The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men,” Calvin wrote, “and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”

What, then, should we do about the phrase? Did Christ actually descend into hell? Should we keep the article in the Creed? When we recite the Creed, should we say this line?

I am unsure of what Christ did between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Good Christians have taken many views on the subject, but I think it impossible to say one way or the other whether Christ was with the Father in Heaven or actually descended into hell. The many years of tradition certainly speak in favor of the phrase’s inclusion into the Creed, but Grudem’s critique certainly packs a lot of power behind it. Christ saying, “It is finished,” certainly speaks of a finality, in some sense, of his suffering and accomplishment. About the article’s historicity, we cannot say.

However, I am in favor of keeping the phrase in the Creed, and saying it with just as much gusto as with each of its lines. Not because I think it is without a doubt what Christ did — as I said, I am entirely unsure. I am for it because it effectively communicates all of what Christ accomplished for us — in bearing the burden of all of our sins for all time, he took on the punishment we would have and should have received for all of eternity in hell. In absorbing the penalty for our sins, he, at the very least, descended into hell spiritually, by experiencing what we deserved.

When Christians all around the world speak of Jesus being crucified, dead, and buried, descending into hell, rising from the dead, and ascending into heaven, they remember that Jesus was the Son of God, come to give his life as a ransom for many. That sounds good to me.

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2 thoughts on “Did Christ Descend Into Hell?

  1. Great article Tony. I have been wrestling through some of the same stuff and like you looking to systematic theology for insight. I particularly like how you present both sides and don’t assume to be right on something scholars can’t agree on. Keep it up with this blog. I just discovered it and so far everything I’ve read has been well thought out, biblically sound and thought provoking.

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