During 2015-16 we enjoyed the fellowship and ministry of a local Presbyterian church. They lovingly afforded me the privilege of their pulpit while they sought 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 helped us consider Christ’s work in anciently refreshing ways.
As would be expected, the weekly liturgy included the Apostles’ Creed. I grew up in a tradition where the closest we got to a creed was anything written by the Gaithers or thundered by Adrian Rogers. Because He Lives 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. New is not always better as 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 [Jesus] descended into hell.” Likely not original to the creed, the phrase was inserted by the 4th century. It’s one of the oldest contemplated truths in church tradition.
I typically mumbled, coughed, shushed a kid, or sneezed 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, however, I made peace with the phrase. Perhaps I assumed some interpretive liberties to do so. Nevertheless, I recite it now in good conscience and appreciate the depth of Christ’s suffering assumed in it. I welcome anything helping 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 (appealing to 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. The jury was not still out on Good Friday.
- To endure the totality of God’s wrath against sinners Jesus entered hell on their behalf. Jesus endured our eternity’s worth of suffering between his death and resurrection. 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 souls of 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, trusted God to rescue them from sheol (cf. 1 Sam 2.6; Is 26.19). Jesus retrieved and reunited OT saints who had been waiting in sheol for their salvation (cf. Pss 49.15; 86.13; 89.48). If so, it is curious how Moses and Elijah “appearing in glory” conferred with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Lk 9.30-31).
If the phrase lends itself to a more literal interpretation, it certainly begs more questions than answers. Alternatively, John Calvin provided a more satisfying interpretation (at least for me and 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 because of what it is. 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). Pedestrians lampooned him on the cross (Ps 22.7; Mt 27.39; Mk 15.29). Israel’s elite 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. One Person still had 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 became the Outsider of all outsiders (Heb 13.12-13).
That is hell. Wholesale rejection. Utter abandonment. The cup of wrath (Jer 25.15). Forever.
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.
Friend, hell is no cartoon or adjective. We cannot take Christ’s crucifixion seriously if we do not take hell seriously. It may be fashionable to “imagine there’s no hell below us.” But that requires imagining there’s no Christ on a cross before us. Neither history nor our conscience allows it. It’s not easy if you try. It’s impossible.
Did Jesus descend into hell? It depends on what we 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, those who trust Jesus will never know what it was like.