How Did Christ Descend?
There is nothing more central to the Christian message than the cross of Christ. It is there in the shadows of the Old Testament. It explodes to the fore in the New, dominating the landscape of the Gospel records. And from the very first sermon preached by Peter on the Day of Pentecost it becomes the hallmark of authentic apostolic ministry. As Paul tells the church in Corinth: 'For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified' (1Co 2.2).
Paradoxically, as church history unfolds in the post-apostolic era, it is the cross that is chosen as the emblem of the Christian Faith. In an age when death by crucifixion was still commonplace and the very shape of the cross was enough to send a chill down anyone's spine, the church opted, not for a dove, or an image of the empty tomb; but for the cross to be its corporate logo. That perhaps more than anything is an indicator not only of its significance, but also its centrality to all that the gospel says.
We see the scale of its significance reflected in the Apostles' Creed in the way that it skips immediately from confessing the incarnation of Christ to confessing his death upon the cross:
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell.
Without so much as the blink of an eye, the architects of the Creed gloss over 33 years of Jesus' life on earth and three years of his earthly ministry almost as though they were of no consequence! In so doing they signal the cross as being the defining moment of salvation history and therefore also the keynote of the good news of redemption we preach to the world.
That said we cannot help but wonder at what seems like an unusual choice of words in this particular clause: 'He descended into hell'. It is made all the more intriguing when we realise that this third line of the triplet was a much later addition to the Creed — most likely in the latter part of the Fourth Century AD. Not surprisingly, it is an addition that has sparked no small measure of controversy and debate as to its precise meaning.
Some have argued that it simply signifies Jesus' burial; but that has little merit since it would represent a redundancy of language given the previous clause. Others have argued cogently on the basis of its Greek form as being 'Hades' that it speaks of his descent into the realm of the dead for the period between his death and resurrection. This view is argued by a shining galaxy of theologians and preachers and cannot be dismissed lightly. But the problem with that interpretation is that it does not reflect the weight and balance of the biblical exposition of the cross and all that it accomplished. So, given the economy of words employed in the Creed, it seems odd to include a statement that reflects something of a mere footnote in the biblical account and its explanation.
It seems more sensible to follow John Calvin (as he in turn followed expositors of the Creed before him) and see its inclusion in the Creed as a summary of the two clauses about the death of Christ that precede it. So on the one hand it sums up the full horror of what is stated almost in a matter-of-fact way in those lines; but on the other hand it provides us with the key to seeing all that the cross accomplished for God's people.
Nowhere is the saving significance of Calvary more dramatically expressed than in the words of John the Baptist at as Jesus began his earthly ministry. Pointing the crowds to Jesus he says, 'Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' (Jn 1.29). Indeed, it bears noting that, in a way that is reflected in the emphasis of the Creed, John the Evangelist skips from confessing the incarnation of Christ to proclaiming his death! On these two great truths the gospel hangs. Three things are worth highlighting in relation to what the two Johns say as a means of explicating what is said in the Creed about the death of Christ.
The Innocent Suffering in the Place of the Guilty
John the Baptist's ministry as the forerunner of the Christ was geared to expose human sin and guilt and the need for both pardon and cleansing. Its limitation was the fact that he could expose this need, but he could do nothing to deal with it. So, when pressed by a delegation from the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to say who he was, responded by saying: 'I am not the Christ' (Jn 1.20). Indeed he systematically denied that he was to be identified with any of the messianic figures bound up with the hope of salvation in the Old Testament. His only message was that they should be looking to the One 'who comes after me' (Jn 1.19-28).
However, when Jesus appeared among the crowds, without any prompting or collusion between himself and John, John declared, 'Behold the Lamb!' In language that spoke unmistakably of death, the Evangelist uses the testimony of the Baptist to introduce the ministry of Jesus at its inception by pointing to its climax and conclusion. In other words, both Johns are saying that the entire purpose of Jesus' coming was to do for guilty sinners what they could not do for themselves - die to take their sin away!
By introducing Jesus in this way, John was not only pointing to the fact that he was destined to die, but also explaining in advance the significance of his death: it would be death as a sacrifice. His language is drawn unmistakably from the world of Old Testament ceremonial practice in which an innocent and unblemished creature (that did not deserve to die) was taken and ritually slaughtered in the place of guilty sinners. God was willing to accept - albeit in symbolic fashion - the death of the innocent in order to preserve the life of the guilty. In that sense it was more than merely the language of some arcane ritual; but rather the language of divine justice. On the one hand it speaks of death as the just consequence of sin. To the ears of our present generation, that sounds harsh, but that is only because today's generation has little or no appreciation of the seriousness of sin. But when we realise that sin is in its very essence defying the authority of God as Lord of the Universe and disrupting the entire equilibrium of the universe he has made, then it makes perfect sense that grand treason on that scale demands the ultimate sanction. The God of the Bible is the Lord of Righteousness whose justice is not to be mocked.
The glory of the gospel is that this very same God has instituted a judicial measure by which sin and guilt can be transferred to a third party so that the guilty individual can be pardoned - the entire Old Testament system of sacrifices is built around this fact. God wanted it ingrained into the very psyche of his people that he was simultaneously the Judge of all the Earth and the Saviour of the World without any contradiction.
The question for any Jew and indeed for any serious reader of the Old Testament was, 'Where, when and how does the symbol become reality?' God makes it clear repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible that the blood of bulls and goats can never actually atone for the sins of men and women, boys and girls because there is no equivalence between them. Indeed, even if God had sanctioned human sacrifice as a means of making atonement, even then it could be no more than the life of one individual for that of another. So where is the fulfilment? The answer can only be found in one Person and one place: Jesus the God-man providing the only sacrifice with the capacity to atone as one for many and the cross of Calvary as the place where that supreme transaction is made.
The judicial element of that transaction is highlighted by Jesus' trial before Pilate. In what in so many ways seems a complete travesty of justice and the ultimate blemish on the judicial system of the Roman Empire, a drama of infinitely deeper significance was unfolding. We have a breathtaking hint of it in the words of Caiaphas the High Priest when he told the Sanhedrin, 'It is better for you that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation perish' (Jn 12.50). Then we see it plainly, as Calvin points out, in the fact that the two charges on which Jesus is convicted before the court of Pilate are treason and blasphemy - the very crimes of which the entire human race is guilty before the court of heaven. The proceedings of the court then climax in what becomes a living allegory in what happens to Barabbas - the criminal convicted of insurrection and murder - when he is released in order that the innocent Jesus might die. The justice being transacted that day as Jesus 'suffered under Pontius Pilate' was the justice of God himself. The innocent suffered so that the guilty might go free.
The Blessed One Cursed that the Cursed might be Blessed
If it was true that Jesus' trial before Pilate indicated that there was more going on that day than met the eye, then the manner of Jesus' death made that even more clear.
Many people (preachers included) are inclined to look at the fact that Christ died on a cross merely from the perspective of its being a hideous form of the death penalty. If that is all there was to it, then Mel Gibson was entirely justified in doing what he did in The Passion of the Christ. More than that, the atheist who got into trouble recently for saying that by the standard of crucifixions generally Jesus got off pretty lightly, was actually right. The physical torment of crucifixion was undeniably horrendous, but other evil empires have found even more hideous ways to extinguish human life. So physical suffering cannot be the sum total of the anguish Jesus went through that day.
The real anguish of the cross can only be understood against the Old Testament backdrop to all that was taking place. In particular, the fact that God had said, '...anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse' (Dt 21.23). That statement probably needs a little unpacking for it to make sense to 21st Century Western minds. In the first place it should be borne in mind that 'hanging' in the ancient Near East meant impalement and not suspension by a rope. So for Jesus to be impaled on a Roman gibbet, meant that this sobering anathema settled on him like a cloud - to the horror of those who loved him and the delight of those who wanted him dead. And in the second place, the idea of cursing in the Old Testament was not some primitive version of what is practiced by witch doctors or Voodoo practitioners today; but rather the judicial element of God's holy covenant. While on the one hand God promises blessing to all who believe the promises of his covenant and submit to its stipulations; on the other hand he warns of cursing for all who spurn his overtures of covenant grace and who refuse to bow to his rule. If the essence of blessing is happiness and harmony as the expression of divine favour, then the essence of cursing is unhappiness and chaos as the expression of divine displeasure.
So, when Jesus was put to death on a cross that Friday morning, to all the Jews who were watching, he was seen as accursed. And it wasn't just that there was chaos, confusion and disorder all around in the scene at Golgotha; but that smell of divine displeasure filled the air. It was a scene that was made all the more incongruous because the One on the cross exposed to God's curse was the very one of whom the Father had said just three years previously, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased' (Mt 3.17). But the greatest of all disruptions that day came, not in the turmoil that surrounded Jesus, but in the disruption of body and spirit that brought his earthly life to an end - the dis-integration that is the supreme anathema of death.
It falls to the apostle Paul to explain the sheer bewilderment of this scene when he tells the Galatians: 'Christ redeems us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree"' (Ga 3.13). The Blessed One is cursed so that those who deserve cursing will be blessed!
The Supreme Judge Facing the Final Judgment
It is only when we put these pieces of jigsaw into place as we try to understand what the cross meant that we then appreciate final clause in the Creed's statement about Christ's passion. What could otherwise be seen as something bland and, though tragic, still somewhat innocuous, is in fact utterly extraordinary.
'He descended into hell' is the starkest and yet most accurate way of summing up what happened on cross that there is. The Blessed One who, for all eternity had known nothing but the highest heaven of intimacy with God, on the cross plumbed deepest depths of the anguish of hell in order to secure salvation for all his people. The intensity of what that meant is distilled into the words that pierced darkness when Jesus cried out, 'My God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mt 27.46).
There was a magnitude to the events played out that day in the drama of Calvary that had eternal proportions. This was nothing less than the drama of Day of Judgment being played out in human history to show where sin ultimately leads. Christ's cry of abandonment is the preview of the final and eternal alienation of hell - permanent separation from God.
It stands as a sobering warning to all who think that keeping God at a distance in this life is a choice worth making. But at the same time it is proof of God's promise to save all those who dare to put their hope and trust in his grace and mercy. God has not only made a promise, but has fulfilled its own requirements by satisfying the demands of his perfect justice to the full, so that he can justly throw open floodgates of his love.
The cross means that God is able to save with clean conscience! It is nothing less than the One who will one day be the Judge of all mankind taking full force of final judgment so that sinners might be spared.
'He descended into hell' may be the most controversial clause in the Apostles' Creed, but when seen this way, it becomes the most glorious, because it speaks most eloquently about the justice and grace of God's salvation!
Mark Johnston is pastor of Trinity Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Richhill, Northern Ireland, and a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust. He is author of several books, including Our Creed: For Every Culture and Every Generation.
"Christ Descended into Hell: No Hope without It" by Aaron Denliger
"Keeping "Christ's Descent Into Hell" by Mark Jones
"'American Gospel' Gets It Right" by Joseph Randall
Our Creed: For Every Culture and Every Generation by Mark Johnston
Atonement, ed. by Gabriel Fluhrer
Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in July of 2008.