Christ Descended into Hell: No Hope without It
Of the twelve affirmations that constitute the Apostles'
Creed -- perhaps the most regularly recited statement of basic Christian
doctrine in the western Church of the last 1500 years -- none has caused
greater uncertainty and debate over the centuries than that declaring that
Jesus Christ "descended into hell." This affirmation, wedged between assertions
that Christ "was crucified, died, and buried" and "rose again" on "the third
day," received fundamentally different interpretations by Roman Catholic and
Protestant theologians of the Reformation era. The sixteenth-century Roman
Catholic Church staked out its understanding of this affirmation in the
Catechism of Trent, suggesting it named Christ's visit not to "hell strictly
so-called," but to that "limbo" where "the souls of the just before the coming
of Christ the Lord were received, and where, without experiencing any sort of
pain... they enjoyed peaceful repose." Christ, according to Rome, spent the day
between Good Friday and Easter Sunday -- "Holy Saturday" as it is sometimes
called -- in this limbo, freeing the souls therein to enter into heavenly bliss.
The (arguably) inherent ambiguity of the Creed's claim
regarding Christ's descent into hell, coupled with Rome's rather speculative
interpretation of the same (itself rooted in late-medieval Christian thought
which, without clear biblical warrant, added purgatory and several limbos to
heaven and hell in the landscape of the afterlife), has caused (even) some Reformed
churches to revise the Creed's affirmation to something less confusing (namely,
"he descended into the grave"), or to omit the phrase entirely.
John Calvin strongly warned against such tampering with the
Creed, even before there were many noteworthy efforts to do so. "We ought not
to omit [Christ's] descent into hell," the Reformer warned, calling that
descent "a matter of no small moment in bringing about [our] redemption."
Calvin was decidedly keen not to deprive (Reformed) believers of the
opportunity to confess their faith in the very words that Christians for
centuries before them had used. He was quite sure that, properly understood,
there was nothing in the words of the Creed -- every last one of them -- to
cause genuine believers alarm. "We have in [the Creed] a summary of our faith,"
Calvin wrote, "full and complete in all details, and containing nothing in it
except what has been derived from the pure Word of God." Calvin was even more keen
not to deprive believers of the opportunity, every time they recited the Creed,
to reflect upon a very critical aspect of Christ's saving work which, in his
judgment, is embodied in the affirmation in question: "If any persons have
scruples about admitting this article into the Creed, it will soon be made
plain how important it is to the sum of our redemption: if it is left out, much
of the benefit of Christ's death will be lost."
Calvin denied that Christ's descent into hell merely named
his descent into "a grave," thus simply repeating "in other words what had
previously been said [in the Creed] of his burial." He argued, rather, that
Christ's descent into hell complements the preceding clause which describes
Christ's death, alerting us to the spiritual
dimension -- the sustaining of God's wrath on behalf of our sin -- of Christ's suffering
upon the cross. God incarnate, after all, did not merely undergo physical
torment and physical death upon the cross. Indeed "if Christ had died only a
bodily death, it would have been ineffectual [for our salvation]." Upon the
cross, rather, Christ endured "the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his
wrath and satisfy his just judgment." And this, according to Calvin, is
precisely what the Creed's affirmation that Christ "descended into hell"
describes. "Christ was put in [the] place of evildoers as surety and pledge --
submitting himself even as the accused -- to bear and suffer all the punishment
that they ought to have sustained.... No wonder, then, if [Christ] is said to
have descended into hell, for he suffered [there] the death that God in his
wrath [has] inflicted upon the wicked!"
Calvin has a ready answer for those who find it strange to
find this affirmation of Christ enduring hell on the cross situated subsequent
to the affirmation that Christ "suffered, died, and was buried." He argues that the Creed's
affirmation constitutes grammatical apposition -- a phenomenon where some noun
or clause restates an immediately preceding noun or clause, but adds something
to it. An instance of apposition is discovered in the sentence: "This is my
daughter, Kaitrin." "Kaitrin" in that sentence (who, by the way, is my
daughter, not Calvin's) renames or restates "daughter." Similarly, "he
descended into hell" renames or restates what occurred when Christ "suffered"
and "died," but fleshes out that preceding clause with rather significant
detail. "The point," Calvin concludes, "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 [by] suffering
in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man."
No wonder, in short, that Calvin felt so strongly about
retaining this affirmation of the Creed. Stripped of this affirmation, the Creed
fails to speak meaningfully of what Christ actually
suffered upon the cross, as his eternal Father -- in light of our sins imputed
to Christ -- turned his back upon him. Indeed, provided we accept Calvin's
interpretation of this Creedal statement, it becomes (arguably) the pivotal
affirmation of the entire Creed, the hinge upon which our salvation turns, the
basis of the remarkable benefits, subsequently listed in the Creed, that belong
to us ("the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life
Of course, it takes some effort to educate believers about
what Christ's descent into hell actually entails. But thus educating believers
is a far better option than revising the Creed or simply omitting a statement
which admittedly requires explanation (and by explanation, I mean opportunity to instruct others in the
meaning of the cross).
An examination of Christ's suffering upon the cross under
the rubric of "hell" also stands, incidentally, to help us understand hell
itself better. Hell, like every other created reality (or perversion of the
same), can only properly be understood in relation to the Creator. Our own
thinking about hell should begin, not
end, with attention to Christ's
endurance of it upon the cross. Such is the proper path towards a theological
rather than physical or metaphysical understanding of hell. Such is the proper
path, in other words, towards properly understanding the horrible fate,
irrevocable estrangement from God, that awaits those who reject the grace of
God that is offered to us in Christ Jesus.
In short, we should continue to confess that Christ
"descended into hell" not only for the sake of catholicity (though certainly
for that), but also in the interest of regularly affirming the profound reality
of what Christ endured for us upon the cross. To steal and tweak a phrase from
J. Gresham Machen, "I'm so thankful for Christ's descent into hell. No hope without
it." Indeed, no description of Christ's person and work is complete without
reference to the same -- reference, that is, in some form at least to the
reality that Christ has suffered hell itself on behalf of his people.
Christ inhabited hell. But not, as Rome would have us
believe, tomorrow in the
liturgical calendar (Holy Saturday). He inhabited hell today (Good Friday), when he drank the cup of God's wrath
against our sin to the very dregs, and so freed us from ever having to down a
single drop of the same. Praise be to God for Christ's descent into hell.