“He Descended into Hell”

Charles E. Hill
John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Editor’s Note – This is a manuscript for chapel address delivered at RTS Orlando in 2010, as part of a series of messages on the Apostles’ Creed.

I. The Dilemma of the Reformers

Perhaps ever since the Reformation, the clause, “he descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed has been perceived as problematic. Speaking of this period, David Bagchi says:

The doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell was unusual, and perhaps unique, in its ability to undermine and cut across confessional allegiances. Although Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed all contributed to the debate, it was a topic on which party lines shifted. In an era which we are used to thinking of as marked by confessional certainty, . . . [this is] an area of Christian doctrine in which the confessional compasses spun out of control.[1]

We do not find a consistent position on this article of the creed among the Reformed. The Heidelberg Catechism relates the descent to the “unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier,” and it teaches that Christ “has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell” (Q/A 44). This understands the article as having to do with torment, the torment of hell, but Christ’s suffering of this torment was all on or before the cross.

In his An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (1576), Caspar Olevianus (the co-author, thirteen years earlier, of the Heidelberg Catechism) seems to take a different view, explaining the descent as “not only the pains of death but also His utter disgrace – the seeming victory of those pains – while He was held down in the grave until the third day, lying, as it were, under the oppression of death.” The Westminster Larger Catechism takes the descensus in this way, explaining it to mean that after Christ was buried, he continued “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” (Q/A 50). The Reformed did share a concern to say that all of Christ’s atoning suffering climaxed and came to a conclusion on the cross, that whatever happened afterwards was part of his humiliation, not part of his redeeming, atoning work, and not part of his glory, which awaited the third day.

All that the Reformed confessions say is true, biblical, and edifying. But can we say it is faithful to original intent of the creed? Olevianus rejects the doctrine of certain ancient Christian fathers, that Christ descended into hell to liberate the patriarchs and prophets of old, because it implied that sins were not forgiven before Christ’s sacrifice. This latter view may have been the doctrine of Rome at the time, but it was not the doctrine of the early fathers. And to many in the Reformed communities the idea that Christ went to the place where the patriarchs were (the so-called limbus patrum) to liberate them sounded too much like the twin of the purgatory doctrine. Olevianus says that the Devil “fabricated” limbo for the righteous of the OT, “just as he invented purgatory” for those who died after Christ.

The Reformer Theodore Beza dropped this article altogether. Some churches today have also dropped it from their recitation of the creed. And that option is open to us, for this creedal statement is not Scripture. It is not contained in the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed. It is often pointed out that the earliest expressions of the creed do not have the clause. It is said to have been added at the Synod of Sirmium in 359.

Though not originally in the Apostles’ Creed, the idea goes back even earlier than the first known forms of the Creed. It was supported by a number of Biblical passages. One OT passage cited in the second century came from Jeremiah: “The holy Lord remembered His dead Israel, who slept in the land of sepulture; and He descended to them to make known to them His salvation, that they might be saved.” If the passage sounds unfamiliar, it is because it is not in our Bibles. Both Irenaeus (4.22.1)[2] and Justin cite it and Justin charges that the Jews had expunged it from their copies. In any case, we don’t have it in any copies.

Support for maintaining this article in our confession is beginning to sound flimsier and flimsier. Yet though Beza dropped it, Calvin did not, nor did the Heidelberg or the Westminster Standards. And so the clause remains in the confessional documents of the many contemporary Reformed bodies, including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the United Reformed Churches in North America. What can we say about original intent, and is it possible to affirm this confession today?

II. The Biblical Teaching

The word “hell” in the Creed does not mean the place of eternal punishment, Gehenna of the New Testament, the lake of fire that burns forever. It is rather Hades, or the Old Testament Sheol. This word is used often as a synonym for death, or the grave, and is associated with the depths of the earth, or the depths of the sea. But usually it has the sense of the place of the dead, where there is some consciousness of the disembodied soul, and thus is not identical merely with “the grave”, the physical place where dead body is laid. The term is often contrasted with heaven. In Isaiah, the king of Babylon, who would exalt himself to heaven, to God’s throne, instead is told “you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit” (Isa 14:15 ESV). In the New Testament, Jesus threatens the same thing for the city of Capernaum.

In the Old Testament, while the experience of being in Sheol was different for the righteous as compared to the unrighteous (Luke 16.23 has the rich man “in torment” in Hades), all the dead – righteous and unrighteous – are found there. Righteous Jacob does not want his gray hairs to go down to Sheol in sorrow.

Second, the phrase “He descended into hell (Hades)” by itself means nothing more than this: that Christ went to the realm of the dead, that is, a spiritual realm. It is correlative to “He was crucified, dead, and buried.” Thus his descent into Hades has to do simply with his identification with the race of Adam. He truly experienced the reality of human death, the unnatural separation of body and soul and his soul’s presence in the realm of the dead.[3]

But of course the article itself does not say what, if anything, happened in Hades once Jesus got there. Just like every other element in the creed, it is merely a focal point that needs exposition. So what did it mean for those who originally confessed it, and what does it mean or should it mean for us?

My own views on this have been formed by my study of early Christian eschatology, and what I found surprised me. In Jewish eschatology of the intertestamental period, there is sometimes a fairly clear indication of the state of the dead. In The Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch (second century BC) the spirits or souls of the dead are kept in three hollows – two for the wicked and one for the righteous – under a great and high mountain in the west. In the latter part of the first century AD, according to Josephus, the Pharisees, who represented the “leading” view among Jews, believe that “souls have power to survive death and that there are rewards and punishments under the earth (̔υπο χθονός) for those who have led lives of virtue or vice.”[4] The two apocalyptic works, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, written probably near the end of the first century and beginning of the second, just after the New Testament was written, each speak of the spirits or souls resting in chambers or treasuries of souls in Sheol where they await the resurrection of their bodies.

This is a pretty consistent picture from at least a very prominent strand or strands of Judaism. There were some Christians in the second and third centuries who latched onto this eschatology as they tried to accommodate into Christianity the Jewish view of a coming earthly kingdom of peace and plenty, which they thought would arrive after Jesus returned.

But if you approached a Jew on the streets of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day and asked: “If you were to die tonight, why should God let you into his heaven?” you would probably have heard: “God doesn’t let anyone into his heaven. You mean, ‘Why should God let me into the good section of Hades,’ don’t you?” The only people who dwelt in a part of heaven, Paradise, were those few individuals whom God had taken from earth before death: Enoch and Elijah, or maybe, so legend had it, the prophet Jeremiah, or perhaps Moses. These had eluded death. But their escape was only temporary. These privileged few would have to return in the last days to earth and die in the fight against God’s enemies – so complete is the sway that death holds over the children of Adam. Death reigned over all. Irenaeus (so right about so many other things) speaks of the “law of the dead”, to which even Jesus submitted. That is, that all the dead go to Hades and there they wait for the reunion with their bodies at the resurrection.

When I turned to the New Testament (and to most of the early Christian writers who wrote in its wake), I found a radical break with this eschatology. No longer are the saints in Sheol/Hades, in subterranean chambers or treasuries of souls. Rather, they are in the very presence of God in heaven, in the heavenly Jerusalem, with the angels in festal gathering (Heb. 12.22), under the altar (Rev. 6.9), or standing before the throne (Rev. 7.9) or standing beside the sea of crystal (Rev. 15.2).

What is the explanation for this? Some would say it is due to a process of Hellenization which is thought to have affected Christianity. It is thought that Christianity moved away from the monistic or unified anthropology of the Hebrews, in which body and soul or spirit are said to be inseparable aspects of man. Instead, the Church is said to have adopted the Platonic or general Greek conception of man, which conceives of man as a duality of body and soul. Therefore, the soul could be freed from the body and go off to heaven, leaving the body to this earth. But this analysis is misguided. Even in the OT, Scripture conceives of the dead as existing in some sort of conscious state, apart from the body which is decaying in the earth (think of Samuel appearing to Saul – or the rich man and Lazarus). And certainly in intertestamental Judaism the same is explicitly the case, as we have seen.

No, it was not Hellenization but something else which was responsible for this sweeping change. What divides Christianity from Pharisaic and apocalyptic Judaism is, first, the fact that the long-awaited Messiah of Israel has come and has accomplished his mission! He was brutally murdered by his enemies, but his death had atoning power for the sins of his people. And though he died, Hades and the power of death could not hold him!

We have a Savior who has done what no one had done before, not Enoch who walked with God, not Abraham the friend of God, not Moses, faithful in all God’s house, not Joshua who gave them rest, not Samson the strong, not David the triumphant king, not Elijah the chariot-rider, not Judas Maccabaeus the Hammer. We have a Savior who has entered death’s realm and has conquered it, who has bound the strong man and spoiled his goods, who has risen and ascended to the throne of glory.

And his conquest of the devil and death was not for himself alone. The second reason for the great change in eschatology is that our Savior prayed to his Father, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24 ESV). There is now a bond of union between Christ and his people, a bond which even death cannot sever. And so, the most important, most momentous thing about the NT conception of the intermediate state of the believer is not so much that it is heavenly as opposed to being subterranean. It is that it is centered on our union with Christ. When the dying thief implored Jesus to remember him, Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). Paradise is here promised not to one who did not die (as was thought to have been the case for Enoch and Elijah), but to one whose imminent death was obvious. Yet it is not just being in Paradise that day that is promised. The penitent thief would be in Paradise with his Savior.

For Paul too, the significance of departure from this life is that it is to be with Christ. He tells the Philippians, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:23). He tells the Corinthians that he would rather be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5.6).

And so, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth! But what about those who have gone before? Christ’s defeat of death, and of him who had the power of death, must also have repercussions for those saints who longed for his day but did not live to see it. And this is what the early church realized. In the second century, Melito of Sardis preached,

By the cross death is destroyed,
and by the cross salvation shines;
By the cross the gates of hell are burst,
and by the cross the gates of paradise are opened.
The cross has become the way of saints and martyrs;
the cross has become the chain of the apostles
and the shield of faith of prophets.[5]

Melito pictures Christ saying:

I am he who destroyed death
and triumphed over the enemy
and tread down Hades
and bound the strong one
and bore man away to the heights of heaven.[6]

About the year 200, Hippolytus wrote in his Commentary on Daniel,

Therefore as many as Satan swallowed and bound, these the Lord, when he came, loosed from the bonds of death, having bound him who was “strong” against us, but having set humanity free. As also Isaiah says, “then he will say to those [men] in chains, ‘Come out!’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be enlightened!’” (Isa. 49.9). [7]

A few decades later, citing Christ’s binding of the strong man in Matt. 12.29, Origen wrote,

First therefore he bound him at the cross, and thus he has entered his house, that is, Hades (infernum), and from there “ascending on high, he led captivity captive” (Ps. 68.18; Eph. 4.8), those certainly who with himself are co-resurrected and have entered the holy city, heavenly Jerusalem” (cf. Matt. 27.52-3). [8]

III. Rethinking the Clause

The clause “he descended into hell” may have been added to the creed in the fifth century, but it was the faith of the church for centuries before that. And if you are having trouble because you think a change in the status of the departed saints is not taught explicitly in the New Testament, consider this. The author of Hebrews in chapter 11, after recounting the faith of those who pleased God in generations past, says, strikingly, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, [“what was promised” refers to the promise of the heavenly country, a heavenly city, as 11.11, 13-16 make plain] since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (ἵνα μὴ χωρὶς ἡμῶν τελειωθῶσιν )” (Heb 11:39-40).

But then in the very next chapter he proclaims,

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (καὶ πνεύμασι δικαίων τετελειωμένων), and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22-24)

These spirits of the just are now perfected, and have received the promise of the better country, the heavenly one, the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

What has intervened? Of course, what has intervened and what has “perfected” them is that Christ has offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins. For by that single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (10.12-14).

And what brings them to heaven is their union with the one who is now in heaven. He has “tasted death for everyone” (2.9) and then passed through the heavens (4.14), to the heavenly Mt. Zion, into the heavenly temple, and through the greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands (9.11), entering once for all into the holy of holies by means of his own blood. The saints of old have now received what was promised! They are in the heavenly city, and now surround the throne.

And we now have fellowship with them even in this life, as we become imitators of those who by faith and patience inherit the promises. Yes, in Christ, they have inherited the promises – the presence of God in his heavenly city, with Christ! This is the victory Christ has achieved for us.

Christ descended into Hades so that you and I would not have to. Christ descended to Hades so that we might ascend to heaven. Christ entered the realm of death, the realm of the strong enemy, and came away with his keys. The keys of Death and Hades are now in our Savior’s hands. And God his Father has exalted him to his right hand, and given him another key, the key of David, the key to the heavenly Jerusalem. He opens and no one will shut, he shuts and no one will open (Rev. 3.7). And praise to him, as the hymn says, “For he hath op’ed the heavenly door, and man is blessed forever more.”

All praise and honor and glory to the Lamb who has conquered! “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth” (Rev. 14.13). And blessed are we here and now, who even now have this hope, and a fellowship with our Savior which is stronger than death! Thanks be to God. Amen.

  1. David Bagchi, “Christ’s Descent into hell in Reformation Controversy” in Peter Clarke and Tony Claydon, eds., The Church, the Afterlife and the Fate of the Soul. Papers Read at the 2007 Summer Meeting and the 2008 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, for the Ecclesiastical History Society, 2009), 228-47 (at 230?).
  2. Irenaeus also refers to Eph. 4.9 here, “He also descended into the lower parts of the earth”.
  3. Clearly this means in his spirit or soul, not his body – against the Lutherans. See 1 Peter 3.18-19.
  4. Ant. xviii.14.
  5. Peri Pascha 24-30.
  6. PP 102, ll. 760-64.
  7. CD IV.33.4
  8. CRom. V.10