The Apostles’ Creed summarizes Jesus’ path of humiliation in three step: “He suffered, died, and was buried;” then it adds: “he descended into hell.” This statement raises questions. When did this happen? Where exactly did Jesus go?
These are not easy questions. The “descent into hell” is the most puzzling article in the Apostle’s Creed. It is not based on a direct statement from the Scriptures. It has been understood in different ways during the history of the church. The main reason is that the word “hell” can be used in different ways: 1) it can refer to death, 2) to the suffering under God’s wrath, and 3) to the place where God will eventually get rid of all that is evil.
Instead of choosing one of these three, we will consider each of these meanings of the word “hell”, and see how it applies to our Lord Jesus and our salvation. Just like the catechism, we take the opportunity to reflect once more on the suffering and death of our Saviour.
Jesus went down into hell.
1. He disarmed death and grave
2. He endured the brunt of God’s wrath
3. He saved us from hell and condemnation
1. Jesus disarmed death and grave
The church of the early Middle Ages in Western Europe confessed: “He descended into hell.” Similar statements are found in older creeds in the Eastern church. What did they mean by that, and why was it so important? The Latin text is: descendit ad inferna, which literally means: “He went down to the lower places.” That word inferna is found for instance in Phil. 2:10, where our Bibles translate: “under the earth.”
The Bible often uses this kind of language when speaking about death. Dying is “going down into the pit”, “going down into Sheol.” Think of Jonah’s prayer as he was ingested by a large fish: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,” says the prophet there. “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit.” (Jonah 2:2, 6). Our Lord Jesus compared himself to Jonah and said that the Son of Man would spend three days in the “heart of the earth.” (Mat. 12:40) Psalm 16:10 prophesied that God “would not abandon his soul to Sheol.” In Rom. 10:7 Paul says that we need not “descend into the abyss to bring Christ up from the dead.”
Did Christ go to a literal underworld?—It turns out that the ancient church took Sheol, or the underworld, much more literally than we do. Many of our Christian forefathers, including Church Fathers like Justin, Ambrose, and Jerome, not only believed in a real underworld, but also that Jesus went there after his death to accomplish a task. What was that task? There were different opinions about that. Some said that Jesus, after suffering on earth, had to complete his suffering in the underworld. Others thought that the Old Testament saints were there and needed to hear the gospel and be set free from death. Yet others thought of Jesus’ time in the underworld as a triumphant parade, in which he showed the powers of death and evil that he had conquered.
But is there a literal underworld, where the dead are kept until the final judgment? John Calvin calls it a “fable” and “childish”, even though he admits that “many great authors” believed it. (Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.9) We would probably agree. The ancient view does not add up, and much of it is based on speculation. We have good reason to believe that the souls of believers, at least, are taken up to be with the Lord, as Jesus told the criminal on the cross: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” So we think of the Biblical language of Sheol and “going down into the pit” as figurative, expressions for dying.
In that understanding, Jesus “descended into hell” is just another way of saying: “He died.” Then we simply affirm what the creed already said before: that Jesus went through the process and indignity of dying. The footnote in the catechism points to Psalm 116 as a description of the anguish of death: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” That was also true of Jesus, as he went down into death.
And the wonderful gospel is that this was not the end. Jesus completed his course of obedient suffering in Sheol, in death and grave; but, as Psalm 16:10 says, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” After his descent into death, Jesus ascended into the light of life, and even into heavenly glory itself.
2. Jesus underwent the brunt of God’s wrath
The Heidelberg Catechism does not care about the original meaning of the “descent into hell.” Instead, it follows John Calvin, who looks for a “surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell,” and finds “one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation.” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.10) In the previous lesson, we emphasized that Jesus truly died, physically, and his burial makes the same point. But just physical death is not enough to make Jesus’ sacrifice a truly atoning sacrifice for our sin. It is essential that he took upon himself the punishment that our sins deserve; it is essential that Jesus took upon himself the brunt of God’s wrath. His suffering was not merely human suffering, but it was “hell” for him, in the sense that he, as the only one in all of human history, had poured out on him the burning anger of God and the full condemnation of all that is evil.
And while that may not be the original intention of the words “he descended into hell,” it certainly is something we must understand and believe. In the words of Herman Witsius, with this understanding the descent into hell becomes “one of the most mysterious, essential, and useful doctrines in our holy religion.” (Witsius, Sacred Dissertations, 2.148)
So the catechism speaks of Jesus’ anguish, pain, terror, and agony, four different words with overlapping meanings, to highlight just how terrible and deep that suffering was. We may be anxious when facing challenges, but nothing compares to the anguish of Jesus when facing the full anger of the holy God against all that is unholy. We may feel pain, but nothing compares to the pain and agony that eternal condemnation would inflict on a sinner. We may be afraid, but the prospect that God will avenge all evil on you is more terrifying than we can imagine. Jesus’ anguish, pain, terror, and agony were unspeakable. While Jesus’ suffered these things throughout his sufferings—think of his prayer in Gethsemane!—they really came down on him during those three dark hours on the cross. The cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is an indication of the nature of this suffering, but we will never be able to understand its full depth.
More than before, the catechism speaks about what Jesus felt and feared. Once again, this is a challenge for those who like to spare the Son of God from such a terrible experience. But it is important to hold on to this. The gospels go out of their way to describe Jesus’ fear and dread in Gethsemane, and his cry about being forsaken calls to mind all of Psalm 22, which powerfully describes a deep sense of suffering. If we are not ashamed of the cross, we should indeed boldly profess the agony of Christ; because he is not a redeemer of bodies only, but also of our spirit and our soul.
This is where the teaching of Jesus’ descent into hell becomes very practical. We not only face weakness of the body, and we not only fear physical death. We can be hurt and troubled in non-physical ways. We can be fearful, doubtful, insecure; we can feel the weight of responsibility and guilt, and be bent down under terrible thoughts and temptations. The catechism summarizes all of this as: my greatest sorrows and temptations. Even if your body is perfectly healthy, you may feel that you have sunk very deep, that you are drowning, as if you are being punished by God himself, or at least deserve that punishment.
But Jesus is there too. He, too, suffered anguish, pain, terror, and agony of soul and mind. Except he was facing the real thing, the most terrible wrath of God. He faced that, too, on our behalf. And because of that, he has delivered me, set me free from it.
Knowing that may not take away your anxiety and pain of heart, certainly not right away. But the catechism, echoing the gospel from the Bible, wants us to become assured and comforted by it. Because if there is one thing Jesus’ suffering means, it is this: God gave him “hell”, so that we will never truly go there.
3. Jesus saved us from hell and condemnation
That brings us to a third meaning of the word “hell”, which is the way we typically use the word. Jesus and his apostles often speak about a place where unbelievers end up, along with Satan and all his evil minions. Jesus tells us not to be afraid of people who can only kill your body, but to be afraid of him who can cast you into “hell”. Here Jesus uses the word gehenna, the name of a garbage burning site near Jerusalem, which symbolically represents the place where all evil will burn forever. Jesus also uses different expressions for the same idea: “The pool of fire”; “The outer darkness”; “The furnace of fire, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” In the book of Revelation, this place is called the Abyss; it is where Satan will end up and, eventually, even death and Sheol themselves will be thrown into it.
In the Middle Ages, popular culture was obsessed with hell, with this place of punishment. Famous, of course, is Dante’s poem Inferno, with detailed descriptions of the way wicked people are punished. We know that in Luther’s time, travelling preachers acted out the terrors of hell, making the people terribly scared. This became an unhealthy obsession, and led to much superstition.
But our modern Christian culture often goes too far the opposite way, by denying “hell” completely. We must take Jesus’ warnings seriously. Think of his parables in Matthew 25: The lazy, unfaithful servant is thrown out “outside, into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Mat. 25:30) The “goats” in the final judgment, who have failed to receive the people of the Lord, “will go away to eternal punishment.” (Mat. 25:46) In the New Testament no less than in the Old, it is clear that “our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:29) “It is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31) if your sins are not covered by the sacrifice of Jesus.
It must be very clear to us, that based on our own attitudes and behaviours, we deserve to go that place. As long as our life is lived in sin, in the service of the Evil One, it is only natural that we end up where he ends up. In the Abyss, in hell, in eternal separation from the grace of our Lord. This is no medieval fear-mongering, but the solemn warning of the Bible.
Whatever this ultimate place of punishment may be like, Jesus did not go there physically. But he did experience the wrath of God that sets that hell on fire. The rightful anger and indignation of God that burns against sin and rebellion, and that will burn against Satan and all his allies forever—that Jesus experienced as he suffered on the cross.
And here the gospel gives us both a warning and comfort. Warning that the Lord will hold the unrighteousness for punishment on the day of judgement. But also the comfort and assurance that the Lord will rescue the godly. (2 Pet. 2:4) Hell is real; but if we believe in Jesus Christ, we will not have to go there, because Christ suffered the fire of hell, that is, the wrath of God against sin. Because of that, the way is open for us to live with him in peace and glory instead.
“Jesus went into hell.” We have seen that this article in the Apostles’ Creed is not easy to interpret. But whether we focus on Jesus’ death, or the suffering he went through for our sake, it certainly preaches the gospel to us. He came to take care of everything that we, bankrupt sinners, rightly deserve, so that we no longer have to fear. In that way, as the catechism says, he has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.
In Lord’s Day 14 through 16, we have focused in detail on the way of Christ’s humiliation. We lowered himself to our level, and below, so that he may lift us out of the deep misery of sinful human life. If you understand this, even only some it, you have every reason to come to Jesus Christ in faith, to lay your life in his hand, and be saved through his suffering and death.
- What three meanings have been given to the word “hell”?
- What did some early Church Fathers think about what Jesus did after he was buried?
- Why is it important that Jesus’ suffering and death was more than physical?
- What kind of suffering will we never have to endure because Jesus did?
- When Jesus speaks about “hell” (gehenna), what is he talking about? For whom was hell created?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Jonah 2. What imagery does Jonah use to describe his imminent death?|
|Tuesday||Psalm 16. From the very beginning, the church saw in verse 10 a prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection. Why?|
|Wednesday||Hebrews 5:1-10. When did Jesus suffer, according to this passage? What was the purpose of this suffering?|
|Thursday||Revelation 20. What is the purpose of hell, here called “the lake of fire”?|
|Friday||2 Peter 2:1-10a. What examples does Peter give of “hellish” judgment? What warning and what comfort is there for us? (v. 9)|
|Saturday||Psalm 56. Why do we not have to fear anything?|