Since last summer we have enjoyed the fellowship and ministry of a local Presbyterian church. They have lovingly allowed me the privilege of the pulpit while they seek a pastor. When the heavenly accounts are settled, we will be indebted to this congregation for their kindness to us. The weekly liturgy and encouragement has helped us consider Christ’s work in anciently refreshing ways.
Our weekly liturgy includes the Apostles’ Creed. I was raised in a context where the closest thing to a creed was anything written by the Gaithers. Gaithers notwithstanding, the creed is a beautiful, concise summary of Christian orthodoxy. It doesn’t bear scriptural authority, but reciting it (re)connects us to twenty centuries of faithful church history. It reminds us “new” is not always better and we stand on many a martyred shoulder. Various Christian traditions might confess more but Christianity itself cannot confess less.
The creed confesses the much-debated phrase “he descended into hell.” Probably not original to the creed, the phrase was inserted by the 4th century so it has long been part of church tradition. I typically mumbled, coughed, sneezed or yawned my way through the phrase in liturgical services, unsure if it meant what I believed or if I believed what it meant.
After several months of reflection I have made peace with the phrase, even if assuming some interpretive liberties to do so. I can recite it in good conscience and appreciate the depth of Christ’s suffering assumed in it. I welcome anything that helps me think more often and more deeply about Christ’s passion.
Theologians offer a few primary interpretations, all of which assume a literal descent into the actual place called hell:
- Between his death and resurrection Jesus went to hell to preach to those who had died as rebels against God (1 Pt 3.18ff.; 4.6). He either offered them salvation one last time or declared his triumph over them, thus forever confirming their condemnation. Obviously, this view is fraught with a number of theological problems.
- To endure the totality of God’s wrath against sinners Jesus entered hell on their behalf. However, it would seem premature for Jesus to announce “It is finished!” (Jn 19.30) if there were any loose ends.
- Between his death and resurrection Jesus went to hades, the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew sheol. Sheol was a “waiting room” where the righteous and unrighteous went at death (cf. Gen 37.35; 42.38; 1 Sam 28.13-14). Though sheol was unpleasant, the unrighteous suffered while the righteous did not. The righteous, however, hoped to be rescued from sheol and reunited with God (cf. 1 Sam 2.6). Jesus rescued the OT saints who had been waiting in sheol for their salvation (cf. Pss 49.15; 86.13; 89.48).
If the phrase lends itself to a more literal interpretation, it certainly begs more questions than answers. Alternatively, Calvin provided a more satisfying interpretation (at least for me, for now).
“The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, 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” (Institutes, 16.8).
The hell into which Christ descended was the fullness of God’s wrath poured out on him at the cross. Hell, therefore, was not a place Jesus must go but a reality he must experience. Hell is not hellish because of where it is, but what it is. And we see what it is throughout the crucifixion narrative.
At each advance, Jesus was being rejected. The religious leaders contracted Judas to betray Jesus (Mk 14.43). All his disciples “left him and fled” (Mk 14.50). Disgusting Roman officers spit on Jesus and punched him like a piñata (Mk 14.65). Peter doubled back only to betray Jesus again (Mk 14.66-72). Despite himself, Pilate ordered Jesus’ execution (Mk 15.15). While on the cross, pedestrians lampooned him (Mk 15.29). Israel’s finest mocked him (Mk 15.31-32). Even the penny-ante thugs flanking Jesus insulted him (Mk 15.32). Even the rejected rejected him.
“He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Is 53.3-4).
We hid our face from him.
And then darkness. There was still one person left to forsake Jesus.
A new Exodus was playing out. A New Moses had come. Three hours of darkness echoed three days of darkness in Egypt before the death angel consumed the firstborn sons (Exod 10.21-12.13). Three hours of darkness before the Passover Lamb was slaughtered at twilight to save God’s people from death (Exod 12.6).
“At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” which is translated, ‘MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?'” (Mk. 15.34)
Finally, even his Father rejected him. “It is finished” (Jn 19.30). Jews and Gentiles, bystanders and passersby, friends and family: all rejected him. And then God himself. Jesus had become the Outsider (Heb 13.12-13).
That is hell (wherever it is). Wholesale rejection. Utter abandonment. The cup of wrath (Jer 25.15).
There are no friends in hell. Only outsiders weeping and gnashing their teeth (Lk 13.28; Rev 21.8; 22.15). Devourers devouring themselves without ever being devoured. Not even Satan will have anything to do with them. It is a living death. The living death.
Did Jesus descend into hell? It depends on what you mean by “descend” and “hell.” Perhaps hell descended onto him. Hell enveloped him. Whether he descended literally into hell or not he certainly went through it. And whatever the creed suggests, we will never need to know what it was like.
I can’t wait for Sunday.