One question that has long plagued Christians about the nature of Jesus’ saving work is that which concerns the meaning of the phrase, “He descended into hell”–as found in the Apostle’s Creed. Are we to understand this phrase to mean that the Scriptures teaches us that Jesus actually descended into hell after his death to proclaim His victory over unbelievers or demons? Or, as our Reformed Confessions have intimated, are we to see it as meaning merely that Jesus suffered the pains of hell on the cross for His people as their substitute and/or remained in a state of death for a time until His resurrection?
In His chapter on Christology in Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos sets out various schools of thought and nuanced attempts to explain this phrase among the different ecclesiastical traditions. He explained:
“a) The Roman Catholic view. When His soul was separated from the body, in this soul Christ went to the limbus patrum—that is, the border region of the Fathers, the place where souls who had died previously find themselves. The purpose of His appearance in this place was to bring these souls into heaven. The place of glory could not be open for them previously because the true Christian sacraments, which actually communicate grace, were lacking under the old order. There was at that time no genuine and perfect salvation, and that lack was supplied through the saving act of Christ.
b) The Lutheran view. In the Formula of Concord, this is described as follows (article IX):
“A dispute has arisen among those who have subscribed to the Augsburg Confession concerning this article: When and how did our Lord Jesus Christ, as our catholic faith teaches, descend to hell? Did this occur before or after His death? Further, one has asked whether He descended only according to His soul, or only according to His deity, or actually in body and soul, and whether this occurred spiritually or bodily. Also, it has been disputed whether this article should be reckoned to the suffering or to the glorious triumph of Christ. Now since this article, as also the preceding, can be comprehended neither by our senses nor by our reason, but must be accepted by faith alone, we have unanimously approved that there shall be no dispute concerning this point, but that one shall believe and teach it in all possible simplicity. Let us in this respect follow the godly teaching of Dr. Luther, who in his sermon at Torgau in 1533 has unfolded this article in a most godly manner, cutting off all curious questions and awakening all Christians to the godly simplicity of faith. For it should be enough for us to know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and that by Him we are snatched from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and even from the jaws of hell. But in what way these things have come to pass, let us not ask about that curiously but rather await the knowledge of these things in another world, where not only that mystery but also many other things will be made clear—things that we must simply believe here, things that go beyond the reach of our blind reason.”
This still sounds very modest. In reality, however, what is intended is an “actual, real and supernatural movement” of Christ, “by which having wrestled Himself free from the shackles of death and having again become alive, He went with His entire person to the underworld in order that He might show Himself to the evil spirits and damned men as victor over death” (Hollaz). Christ also preached in hell, but it was not the preaching of the gospel of salvation but rather a legalistic preaching of damnation.
c) The view of Aepinus (1499–1553) and others. According to Aepinus, Christ had traveled to hell really and locally to endure hellish punishments there in our place. This descent had reference only to His soul, as also, for that matter then, the orthodox Lutherans do not appear to want to deny that Christ’s body remained in the grave. With Aepinus, the descent into hell in the strictest sense falls under the humiliation.
d) The view of Ebrard, Schenkel, and many recent theologians. They maintain that Christ went to Sheol to preach the gospel there, not in the Lutheran sense of a preaching of curse, but with the goal of converting the inhabitants of Sheol. Sheol (שׁאוֹל; Greek ᾅδης) is not hell as the place of final damnation but the realm of the dead in which Old Testament believers at one time were gathered with pagans and unbelievers from Israel after their death and in which dead pagans are now located with unbelievers who die among Christians. At present, the doctrine of the so-called probation after death is voiced in this explanation of the descensus.
e) The view among the Reformed that explains the descensus as the hellish anguish that Christ has suffered in His soul, especially in Gethsemane and on the cross, when He felt Himself forsaken by the Father. Thus our [Heidelberg] Catechism, question 44; Calvin, Institutes, 2:16, 8–12; Wollebius, Bucanus, Wendelin, Burman, Voetius, Picket, Polanus; more recently Dr. Kuyper, who also gives his own explanation of the order of the articles in the creed. That the descent into hell comes after the death and burial has its basis, according to Dr. Kuyper, in that eternal death follows temporal death and burial for the lost. What Christ has done for us is summed up here in the same sequence as would have taken place if we had had to bear it personally.
f) The view among the Reformed that explains the descent into hell as a forceful expression of the fact that both in body and soul Christ found Himself in the state of death. That He descended into hell simply means to say He entered fully into the state of death. The Westminster Larger Catechism, 50, asks, “Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after His death?,” and answers, “Christ’s humiliation after His death consisted in His being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology, 2:616–17) defends this view with an appeal to the derivation of the English word “hell” from the Greek ᾅδης, which means “what is invisible,” “what is covered,” as well as by explaining the insertion of this article in the creed from an attempt to illumine further the article on the burial. According to A. A. Hodge, the article intends to say nothing other than that Christ has really died: “Crucified, died, buried, dead-dead!”
g) With many Reformed theologians, one finds the fifth and sixth opinions combined. They allow for the descent into hell, which concerns the person of the Mediator, to apply partly to the body and partly to the soul. It means that in His body the Mediator remained in the Sheol of the earth and in His soul suffered hellish pains. So Olevianus, Witsius, Mastricht, and many others.”1
Vos then went on to defend the Reformed view as over against the other proposed interpretations by exegeting 1 Peter 3:18-20:
“Does Scripture itself speak of a descent into hell?
No. The expression in Latin and Greek that is translated by these words reads, as we said above, “descendit ad inferna, κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, descended to the lowest parts.” This expression appears to be derived from Ephesians 4:9, “This ‘He ascended,’ what is it other than that He had also descended to the lower parts of the earth (εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς)?”
To understand what the apostle intends with these words in Ephesians 4, one must compare the immediately preceding citation from Psalm 68:18. This psalm pictures how Jehovah, after having undertaken a victorious expedition against His enemies, returns in triumph to His dwelling on the top of Zion. He has brought with Him booty from the war, which He, as kings are accustomed to do, distributes among His servants. This all has significance as a type, the apostle assures us. Jehovah’s going up to Zion was a type of the ascension of the Lord. His expedition coming down from Zion and His struggle with enemies found their antitype in the gigantic struggle of the Mediator with the power of sin death and darkness. The distribution of the spoils of war represented the giving of the gifts of the Spirit, from which everyone receives from the measure of the gift of Christ, by which some are equipped to be apostles, others prophets, etc.
From this, it is now apparent what the apostle will have understood by the words “descend to the lower parts of the earth.” It simply serves to show that Christ has not gone to heaven without the fruits of His glorious victory. He ascended, but not without something having preceded. He first went down for battle. The ἀνέβη may not be viewed as a stand-alone act but must be viewed in the light of the preceding κατέβη. This ἀνέβη, “what is it other than that He had first descended to the lower parts of the earth?” The one who descended is Himself also He “who ascended above all heavens so that He might fill all things.” The fullness of the gifts, then, which the Mediator has at His disposal following His ascension, is measured by the apostle according to the depth of His humiliation. Because He came down to the lower parts of the earth, therefore, having ascended above all heavens, He could fill all things, and as the identical person who had lived through all these things (καὶ αὑτὸς, v. 11) give apostles, prophets, etc.
One sees that for the apostle the expression εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς is the measure of the humiliation of Christ. Given that, however, it becomes wholly unusable for Roman Catholic and Lutheran dogmatics. For in both, one is accustomed to view the descent into hell as a triumph belonging to His exaltation and not as a humiliation into the depths of the world of the spirits for a personal struggle with Satan within his very own domain. The triumphal exaltation here is the ascension—and not the ascension of Christ’s separated soul from hades to paradise, which one has imagined, but just that ascension on which the outpouring of the gifts of the Spirit followed, the ascension from the earth on the 40th day after the resurrection. This already provides us with the occasion to make the point from which the ascension begins as the endpoint of the descent, for both are commensurate in depth and height for the apostle. As deep as He has descended, so high has He ascended. The expression itself leads us to the same thought. It means “the lower part of the earth.” The earth has two halves: a visible side, on which the living walk, and an invisible side, in which the dead lie, namely, the grave. Christ has descended even to the invisible lower part of the earth. He was laid in the dust of death, not in parts under the earth, the underworld, but in the lower part of the earth itself.
That we are correct to understand the words in this way may be proven, finally, from their origin. They are derived from Psalm 139:15, where the poet says that he is wondrously wrought “in the lowest part of the earth” (בְּתַחְתִּיּוֹת אָרֶץ), that is, in his mother’s womb. This is designated as a hidden, invisible place. Therefore, one need not assume that here Paul, too, means a mother’s womb by the lower parts of the earth and so would have thought of the incarnation from Mary as the deepest humiliation. Psalm 139 is poetic, and the mother’s womb appears there not as something low but as something hidden. Here, on the other hand, where the comparison is between ascending and descending, a spatial image must be assumed. Thus Paul very appropriately chooses the burial of the Savior as the image of His deepest humiliation in order to place it over against the ascension as His greatest exaltation. Nothing is said of an actual descent to the place of the lost or the demons.
Is not a local descent into hell taught in 1 Peter 3:18–19?
In the Greek this passage reads: θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι, ἐν ῷ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν … [translated as Vos understands it: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which also He went and preached to the spirits in prison …”].
It is explained very differently, and without going into all the questions that can present themselves, we limit ourselves to two areas:
a) The conditions under which a local descensus would in fact be taught here would be:
1. That σάρξ here means “body,” and πνεῦμα, “soul.” Then the explanation would be: In His body Christ is dead, but in His soul is made alive, and He has preached to the spirits in Sheol.
2. That the datives in both parts of the sentence must have the same sense and each must be translated by “in which”: “in His body dead,” “in His spirit made alive.”
3. That the word ζῳοποιηθεὶς does not mean “made alive” but “kept alive,” for the proponents of the local descent must understand it this way. They cannot and will not assume that the soul of Christ also died and then was brought back to life again.
Now, it appears that none of these conditions are supported by the text. To begin with the last, ζῳοποιεῖν does not mean “to keep alive,” but always “to bring back to life.” So Christ is brought back to life. With that, the translation of πνεύματι by “in the spirit” falls, for Christ did not die according to the spirit in contrast to His body. We are compelled to translate, “by the spirit.” And this changed translation now necessitates that another sense than “body and soul” be given to the contrast “flesh and spirit.” It is a contrast between divine and human nature, as it appears in Romans 1:3–4, “who is born from the seed of David according to the flesh, but declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of sanctification”; Romans 9:5, “From which is Christ, as far as the flesh is concerned, who is God over all to be praised forever”; John 1:14, “The Word became flesh.” Here “flesh” always means the whole of human nature, inclusive of soul and body.
b) The explanation of the passage required by the context.
1. The point of departure is the admonition of the apostle that Christians must suffer patiently, witnessing by their proclamation of the faith, witnessing by their behavior, to those who oppress them. This is urged by the example of Christ. In Him it was apparent how much better it was to suffer than to oppress in an unrighteous way. His enemies could kill Him in His human nature; by the Spirit, by His divine nature, He was raised again to immortality. So it will also be with believers who suffer oppression for the sake of their faith.
2. This will happen among believers not only in following Christ but as a working out of Christ’s life in them. The deep thought that the likeness of the lot of believers to that of Christ rests on a fellowship in lot—that in Christ is not only the example but also the causation of what takes place with His members. This deep thought also appears here. Christ therefore goes with His members through oppression to the life of glory.
3. That this in fact is so the apostle proves in a most meaningful way, as follows: The flood was a symbol and type of baptism, and baptism signifies and seals the salvation of Christians through oppression of them leading to life. What took place at the flood? The Spirit, the deity of Christ, worked in Noah, “the preacher of righteousness,” and testified through him against the unbelieving world. The same water of the flood, through which Noah with his eight was saved, became destruction for unbelievers. This can be seen from the fact that those to whom the gospel was preached then are now spirits in prison. They were disobedient at that time, however long the patience of God waited, and have received the payment of their hardening.
Noah himself was saved by Christ, for the water of the flood from which he was saved pictured the death of Christ from which He arose. Taken all together, then, the same history that is already observed in the flood is now seen when Christians suffer oppression:
a) The suffering of Noah was an aftereffect of the oppression of Christ, or if one wishes, a prelude to it. Since Christ testified in him, he was ridiculed and reviled.
b) The suffering of Noah was, as such, the cause of the destruction of the world. Since Christ testified in him and was rejected in him, the unbelieving spirits were imprisoned.
c) The salvation of Noah was a result of the resurrection and glorification of Christ. Therefore he was saved through water (v. 21). God could have saved him in a different way, but it must be made known, as a type, that his deliverance resulted from the great deliverance of the Mediator from suffering and death, to which the water of baptism points.
All this is repeated in the same order in the present time:
a) The suffering of believers is an aftereffect of the suffering of Christ, since they witness for their Savior, sanctify Him in their hearts, always give account for the hope that is in them (v. 15), and are therefore ridiculed and reviled. So it transpired with the Savior Himself: Since He bore witness against the world, it nailed Him to the cross and killed Him.
b) The suffering of believers is, as such, the cause of the destruction of the world. Since the world fights against Christ and rejects Him in believers, it will imprison itself. The same end that struck the world in Noah’s days is to be expected for it. Nothing different already transpired with the Lord Jesus. When the world caused Him suffering, it sinned against Him most grievously and sealed its own doom.
c) The salvation of believers is a result of the resurrection of the Lord. For Him, the same death that brought judgment to the world was at the same time the passage to eternal life. It is the same with Christians. The oppression of the present produces an entirely surpassing gain of future glory, and that this is directly an effect of the glorification of the Mediator appears from their baptism. This baptism is, according to v. 21, “the appeal of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”2
1. Vos, G. (2013). Reformed Dogmatics. (A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, K. Batteau, D. van der Kraan, & H. Boonstra, Trans., R. B. Gaffin & R. de Witt, Eds.) (Vol. 1–2). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Danny Hyde In Defense of the Descent