Did Christ Descend into Hell?

Bob RoaneCounseling, Death, Eternal Life, Heaven, Hell, Jesus Christ, Theology

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree [the cross].” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:13-14)

One of you asked: Did Christ Descend into Hell? Here’s my answer that I used also at Belhaven University (Windsor Village Campus).

The Apostles Creed

There is disagreement as to what the ancient church meant by the words “He Descended into Hell” in the Apostles’ Creed. On the face of it, this phrase is misleading. This language does not appear in the Bible and does not appear in the Old Roman Creed, an earlier, shorter version of the Apostles’ Creed. The words “He Descended into Hell” do not mean that Jesus, after He died on the cross, went to the place of eternal punishment where lost people go to suffer and be tormented forever. We know that Jesus did not go there because on the first Good Friday, Christ told the repenting and believing thief who died at His side that the thief would join Jesus that very day in Paradise.1 The Creed was originally written in Greek and Latin, so something may have been lost in translation.

Hell is real and the Bible teaches that at the Last Judgment, wicked people who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ will be thrown into eternal torment and punished with everlasting destruction, away from the Lord’s presence and the glory of His power.2 “Let not anyone who thinks that fear of hell should be put out of the mind of unregenerate people ever suppose that they have the slightest understanding of what Jesus came into the world to say and do.”3

Christ Suffered Hell’s Equivalent

The Scriptures teach that what Christ suffered on the cross and in His life of humiliation was itself a kind of descent into hell. On the cross and before, Jesus experienced hell’s equivalent as our sinbearer and substitute. He suffered the full measure of God’s just judgment, wrath, severity, and curse. Jesus paid a debt He did not owe, because we owed a debt that we could never pay. When Christ was forsaken by God His Father on the cross, what Christ suffered was tantamount to what damnation is for the wicked.4,5 And because Jesus made atonement for us (at-one-ment with God) His followers can be sure that God’s justice is fully satisfied and that we will be spared from God’s condemnation and damnation. “Just as surely as there was an actual cross, an actual body, actual blood, an actual death, an actual tomb, an actual resurrection so there was an actual atonement (reconciliation with God), not merely the possibility of one.”6 Praise Him! Praise Him! Jesus, our blessed Redeemer! He is why Christian’s have unshakable hope.

Scripture says, “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation….We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”7 Because of Christ’s obedience, dying, and rising for His followers, God’s grace, mercy, and peace now flow down on Jesus’ followers copiously.

John Newton’s hymn “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” puts it this way:

Let us wonder; grace and justice Join and point to mercy’s store; When through grace in Christ our trust is, Justice smiles and asks no more: He Who washed us with His blood Has secured our way to God. 

The Value of Jesus’ Atonement

My views above agree with The Heidelberg Catechism which states, “The creed adds, ‘He descended to hell’ to assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.”8

The Heidelberg warmly reminds us of the personal, practical, pastoral value of Christ’s saving work for us. Because of Jesus’ obedience, death, and resurrection, His followers don’t need to dread death. Jesus has been there before us and taken away the sting of death, and He will see us through. Christ says, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”9 We can fear no evil as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because our Lord is an experienced Shepherd and Guide. Jesus has been to death and back before us and He will lead us home to God our reconciled Father.

Christ says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…..My Father’s house has many rooms and I am going there to prepare a place for you and I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”10

Prayer: Heavenly Father, if we are not yet believers in Jesus, make us believers. If we are not born again, give us the new birth. If we are not yet Christ’s followers, make us trust and obey Him, so that we will not perish but have everlasting life in Jesus. If we are already Christ’s followers, restore to us the joy of your salvation and make us eager to obey you. Then help us to teach your ways to others so that they will return to you. Since we have been made right in your sight by faith, we have peace with you because of what Jesus our Lord has done for us. Thank you that Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege! Now we are your adopted sons and daughters and we joyfully look forward to sharing a glorious future with Jesus. We praise you in Christ’s great name. Amen.

Notes: 1 Luke 24:43.     2 Matt 25.41-46; Mark 9:42-48; 2 Thes 1:5-10.     3 J. Gresham Machen.     4 See Isaiah 52:13–53:12, often referred to as the “gospel in the OT” or the “gospel of Isaiah.” This chapter is cited almost forty times in the New Testament, see The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible: Vol. 5, article by Moisés Silva, p. 15. John MacArthur wrote, “This section of the Bible contains unarguable, incontrovertible proof that God is the Author of Scripture and that Jesus is the fulfillment of messianic prophecy. The details are so minute that no human could have predicted them by accident and no imposter could have fulfilled them by cunning. Clearly this refers to Messiah Jesus, as the NT attests.”     5 See also Matt 26:36-46; 27:45-46; Luke 22:44; Heb 5:7-10.     6 John Blanchard.     7 2 Cor 5:19-21, see also 1 Peter 1:24-25.     8 Q+A #44, The Heidelberg Catechism (written in 1563, translated from German 2011).     9 Rev 1:18.     10 John 14:1-3.