Christ's Descent into Hell

Could you explain Jesus' descent into hell? What was the purpose and what did he do?

Answer: 

The mention of Christ’s descent into hell is one of the last to be placed into the Apostles’ Creed (in the fourth century). It might well be the least understood—or most misunderstood—sentence in the creed. Thank you for asking the question and allowing us to review the biblical and creedal truth.

When Did Jesus Descend? Some people have maintained or merely assumed that the reference is to Christ’s suffering the God-forsakenness of hell, a key aspect of his torment on the cross as our Sin-bearer. Others consider the phrase a vivid way of stressing that Jesus was really dead after his crucifixion by saying he went to the place of the dead. While Christ’s unimaginable suffering and undeniable death on our behalf are truths we cherish, the descent into hell that we confess is not a part of his humiliation but of his exaltation. The creedal phrase summarizes 1 Peter 3:18-20. After Christ died he was made alive again, and in this state of exaltation he descended into hell. In the creed this sentence precedes mention of Christ’s resurrection, another phase of his exaltation. The church fathers who authored the creed were likely thinking of the public disclosure of Christ’s resurrection, the revealing that let the world in on the glorious truth of this event that took place prior to the angels’ rolling the stone away from the already-empty tomb.

Why Did Jesus Descend? Peter says Jesus “preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago . . . in the days of Noah.” After the successful completion of his atoning work for mankind, he went to hell to preach. In history, some speculative and unbiblical ideas about this have surfaced. Some have taught that Jesus preached the gospel in hell, giving a second chance to souls who rejected the gospel when they were living on earth. Hebrews 9:27 forbids this idea and no Scripture supports it. Some have speculated that Jesus descended into an underworld borderland, a “limbo,” to release righteous souls somehow unable to enter heaven until the work of atonement was completed. There is no Bible support for this idea either. Jesus descended to preach or proclaim his victory over hell and the devil. This idea is not only compatible with 1 Peter 3 and the rest of Scripture, but may be the subject of Colossians 2:15 as well. “Making a public spectacle of” and “triumphing over” the inhabitants of hell in view of his triumph on the cross is Christ’s dramatic way of affirming his victory and leaving no doubt that the gospel of redemption and salvation stands firm despite ridicule and rejection through unbelief.

Why Do We Confess Jesus’ Descent? The Formula of Concord (SD, IX, 3) cites a sermon from Martin Luther that warns us not to “bother ourselves with lofty, sophisticated ideas about how this occurred” as too many in church history have done. Rather we can and should “only hold to the Word” and in this way “retain the heart of this article and derive comfort from it, so that neither hell nor the devil can capture or harm us and all who believe in Christ.” Echoing 1 Peter 3 and Colossians 2, we boldly express joyful confidence. Satan is conquered forever and doomed to his own hell (as an inmate, not the warden). Death and hell are forever subdued and defeated, and this truth is proclaimed throughout the universe. We may boast that we been granted a permanent victory because the risen and ruling Christ has redeemed us once and for all – and hell cannot undo that truth.


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