One thing that has puzzled me ever since I went to church as a teenager was the line I used to say in the Apostle’s Creed: “He descended into hell”. When I said this, my mind was filled with all sorts of fantastic images of Jesus plummeting through the earth on Easter Saturday to a place where the devil lived and where the fire burned continually. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I was happy to say it, because, after all, it was in the creed that the apostles had written, right?
It came as a surprise to me in more recent years to find out that:
- the apostles didn’t actually write that creed
- people have felt comfortable about replacing the line “he descended into hell” with “he descended to the dead”; and
- at least one scholar within the evangelical ranks, Wayne Grudem, had called for the line to be removed altogether!1
I felt that perhaps it was time to have a closer look at the idea of Jesus’ descent into hell. Let’s look at what the Bible says.
Five Bible passages
There are five Bible passages that could possibly be teaching such a ‘descent’ of Jesus: Acts 2:27 (quoting Psalm 16:10), Romans 10:6-7, Ephesians 4:8-9, 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6. In four of the five, the reference to ‘hell’ or ‘descent’ seems to be referring to something other than a literal descent.
- Acts 2:27 is discussing the descent to the grave.
- Romans 10:6-7 talks hypothetically of the ‘deep’ (NIV) or the ‘abyss’ (ESV).
- Ephesians 4:8-9 seems to be about the descent to earth in the incarnation (see a good discussion of this in Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Ephesians).
- 1 Peter 4:6 makes no mention of descent.
Many simply say that Jesus’ preaching to the spirits in prison is a clear reference to his descent to hell and his evangelization of those who were dwelling there. However, the verbs that describe Christ’s ‘going’ do not have any notion of ‘descent’ attached to them; the same verb is used to describe Christ’s ‘going’ into heaven in verse 22. Nor is there any suggestion that the ‘prison’ of verse 19 is to be equated with either of the common New Testament terms for hell: Hades, the realm of the dead, and Gehenna, the final place of punishment. The passage does not support a literal descent into hell, but rather a going to a prison. The details of this prison can be debated, but it is less than satisfactory grounds for claiming that Jesus descended into hell.
So it seems that the biblical evidence does not lean towards a literal descent. But what does this do to our understanding of Jesus dying in our place and suffering the punishment that was ours? Surely if the punishment I deserve as a sinner is to go to a place called ‘hell’ (e.g. Matt 25:31-46), shouldn’t Jesus have to go to a place called ‘hell’ if he is really going to take all of my punishment in my place? Is there another way of understanding ‘he descended into hell’ in the Apostle’s Creed that does justice to Jesus as substitute if we can’t affirm a literal descent?
The descent metaphor
There have been others in the past who have reached the same conclusion that Jesus didn’t literally descend to hell. One such person was John Calvin, one of the Reformers of the 16th century, who followed the interpretations of Nicolas of Cusa and Pico della Mirandola. Calvin realized the difficulties outlined above, but felt that the line reflected an issue grappled with by the Church Fathers from the earliest days of Christian faith, and so he searched for a different understanding. He concluded that the line “he descended to hell” was not giving another ‘event’ that actually happened, but that it was giving an explanation of the previous three ‘events’: the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. In other words, Calvin thought that the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus was his descent into hell:
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.3
Thus, Calvin avoided the ‘literal descent’ view, yet still kept the line in the Apostle’s Creed. It is interesting to note that one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, followed this interpretation, as did the Heidelberg Catechism. The question we need to ask now is whether or not it is fair to understand Jesus’ descent into hell in this metaphorical fashion.
Is it fair to describe Jesus’ passion as a ‘descent into hell’?
We will consider this question in the following manner. Firstly, we will note the nature and purpose of creeds. Secondly, we will look at how the Christian doctrine of the Trinity portrays the relationship between the Father and the Son. Thirdly, we will consider the holiness of God. Finally, we will look at evidence from the Gospels as to Jesus’ own experience of the passion. These four elements pull together the reasoning behind the claim that Jesus experienced ‘hell’ on the cross for us.
What are creeds for?
Creeds, inasmuch as they reflect the divine revelation of Scripture, function as the ‘boundary markers’ of what can be said about God. They take the truths of Scripture and try to express them succinctly for corporate confession. In the case of the Apostle’s Creed, the affirmation of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus acknowledges history, but also points beyond it to the theological reality of the atoning work of Christ. The question is, does the line “He descended into hell” say something true of the state of being of Christ in his passion?
The relationship of the Son to the Father
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God is one God and three persons—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Godhead relate perfectly to each other, so that God can be described as ‘love’ (e.g. 1 John 4:16). John’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus, the Word, has been in relationship with the Father for all eternity (John 1:1). His perfect relationship of love continues even after the incarnation: Jesus loves the Father, and does exactly what the Father wants him to do (John 8:28-29), and the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he does (John 5:20). Their relationship—their knowledge of one another—is such that Jesus can say that he “is in the Father, and the Father is in him” (John 14:11); and even “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The doctrine of the Trinity describes this relationship as ‘mutual indwelling’ or ‘mutual interpenetration’. There is an intimacy between the persons of the Godhead such that we struggle to conceive of how it might be shaken.
The holiness of God
God is holy. His purity and ‘otherness’ from sinful humanity is testified to by the need for a mediator and a sacrificial system of atonement to relate to his people. The prophet Isaiah feared for his life in the presence of the “holy, holy, holy” God, for he knew he was unclean—but his uncleanness was removed through God’s own initiative (Isa 6). God is holy and ‘set apart’, and can have nothing to do with sin. The Apostle John wrote, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God’s holiness means that he cannot abide sin, and yet God promised that he would lay on his servant, Jesus, “the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).
This means that in the passion of Jesus, we see the most profound love (between the Father and the Son) colliding with the most profound wrath (the Father upon Jesus as sin-bearer).
Jesus’ experience of the passion
Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). This is a reference to the cup of God’s wrath (e.g. Isa 51; Ezek 23:31-34). Jesus knew that he was about to suffer the ultimate anger of God, a suffering unparalleled in all history (Mark 13:19), as he experienced the extinguishing of darkness by pure light, for there can be no fellowship between God who is light, and darkness. The humble request for the cup’s removal is followed by the words of obedience, for he knows the role of the servant that he must fulfil. The response to that knowledge is immense anguish that needs nothing less than a divine comforter, and sweat like drops of blood testify to the intensity of emotion (Luke 22:43-44).
On the cross, the clash between God’s love and his wrath is given the ultimate testimony in Jesus’ cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). The wrath endured, the darkness purged, Jesus could cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Jesus’ experience of the holy God’s wrath upon sin—his experience of perfect love withdrawn and unreachable—was an experience of hell. Perhaps Calvin was right to describe the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus as his ‘descent into hell’.
The Easter descent
My teenage notions of Christ plummeting through the earth on Easter Saturday are probably the same sort of fiction as Michelangelo’s depiction of the final judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. What I found in the Scriptures to replace these fantasies was something far richer. Christ’s suffering and death on the cross was the full experience of the wrath of the holy God on my behalf. This Easter, when I repeat the line, “He descended into hell”, I am reminded again of the scope of the incredible love and mercy of God towards us in his one and only Son.
1 W Grudem, ‘He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostle’s Creed’, JETS, 34 1991, pp. 107-112.
3 J Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume I, translated by FL Battles, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1960, II.xvi.10.