Last week we looked at the necessity of the suffering of Jesus as the Messiah, and that this meant both victory over the powers of darkness and redemption from the power of sin for God’s people. This is the meaning of the death of Jesus upon the cross. But what happened after the cross? I mean, the whole reason we have Christianity and Easter is not because Jesus died an atoning sacrifice for sinners alone, but because something remarkable happened after the death of Jesus on the cross.
The Apostle’s Creed next affirms that Jesus “descended into hell, and on the third day he rose again.” But what in the world does it mean that Jesus “descended into hell”? And how did he rise from the dead? This week we will deal with the first of these two controversial statements, “he descended into hell”, and next week we will see how the Christian faith hinges upon the resurrection. In other words, without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, there is no Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:14). But, first, we must deal with this cryptic statement found in the creed, “he descended into hell.”
Jesus’ victory over the power of hell
There are two interpretations on this article which are prominent, and they emphasise either Christ’s victory over sin, or his victory over Satan and his emissaries, both of which are inferred from Jesus’ suffering upon the cross. We looked at this last week in more detail. We will deal with the former first, and then the latter.
Interpretation 1: Christ’s Victory over Sin
The Heidelberg Catechism (henceforth HC) asks the question, “Why is there added, ‘he descended into hell’?” The reason why it states “Why is there added,” is because this article in the Apostle’s Creed was only added much later, perhaps in the fourth century, and so is not confessed by all churches who hold to the Apostle’s Creed. Therefore we understand that this article’s pedigree is to be held with suspicion. Nevertheless, the HC proposes an answer, “That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.” In other words, the HC follows Calvin’s interpretation, which states, “If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No – it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and to satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.” It would seem that Calvin, though not entirely in full agreement with Aquinus, for he still maintains that the entire event happens on the cross, but still follows Thomas Aquinus on this point to some extent who writes, “I answer that It was fitting for Christ to descend into hell. First of all, because He came to bear our penalty in order to free us from penalty, according to Is. 53:4: ‘Surely He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows.’ But through sin man had incurred not only the death of the body, but also descent into hell. Consequently since it was fitting for Christ to die in order to deliver us from death, so it was fitting for Him to descend into hell in order to deliver us also from going down into hell.”
So while the HC and Calvin keeps the torment that Jesus suffered as metaphorical of the experience of hell on our behalf, Aquinus seems to go further and suggest, along with the plain reading of the Creed, that Jesus actually descended into hell. Yet, the entire reason for this still remains to suffer the torments of hell on behalf of those who deserve hell itself. In this sense, Jesus conquered sin fully and made full satisfaction for our sins.
Interpretation 2: Christ’s Victory Proclamation
Michael Bird has shown in his exposition that there is confusion because of “the failure to distinguish between Hades and hell in various versions of the Creed.” Since the 17th Century, hell in the English had come to be a place of judgment and torment to which Satan and his enemies were assigned, but prior to the 17th Century referred to the place of the dead, or, Hades. Bird also shows how this confusion crept into the Latin versions of the Creed with the use of inferus which refers to the place of the dead, or Hades, and infernus which meant the place of torment and judgment. He shows how in some of the earlier versions of the Creed in Latin had descendit ad inferus, but in the fourth century it was changed to infernus. Bird therefore argues that a better translation of the creed, and a more biblical understanding, would be to render this article as “descended to the place of the dead.” Bird shows how the Greek word for Hades is used in the New Testament for the place of the dead, translating the Old Testament concept of Sheol, and that in the New Testament Gehenna came to refer more properly to hell as a place of torment and judgment for the wicked. But for Bird, hell is a place of eschatological judgment that happens at the end of time after the judgment seat of Christ, and so is not a place which has yet been created. In other words, Bird sees the reference to Hades as a place of the dead, like Sheol, which is “the waiting place of the dead… as they wait for the final judgment, while hell is the place of everlasting punishment and eternal separation from God.” Hades, in this sense, is still a place of consciousness, and has a place for the wicked waiting judgment and the righteous experiencing present joys.
Bird suggests three reasons for Jesus’ descent into Hades:
In light of both interpretations considered, I cannot see how this is an either/or. When we confess Jesus' suffering on our behalf, we do confess that he suffered the torments and punishment for sin to the degree that he, the sinless and perfect Son of God, felt the effects of hell on our behalf. But Bird also makes a biblical case that there was more to Jesus’ death than merely this. It was a declaration of victory over the powers of Satan and his emissaries, and indeed a triumph on behalf of us, his people. Both are compatible with our previous study on the atonement: it was both for our sin and victory over Satan on our behalf!
The descent of Jesus into hell is a rather obscure doctrine in the Christian church, upon which many faithful believers are divided. At this point it is important to point out that there is no salvific merit in this article, and therefore there must be much grace shown with different parties who disagree on this matter.
There is one position, however, that claims that Jesus descended into hell to seemingly pay a ransom to Satan, and then through a slight of hand defeats the unexpected foe. This position must be rejected as heretical. There is no evidence of Jesus ever having to make payment to Satan for our sins, or that God used deception to outwit Satan! Jesus conquers Satan, he doesn’t pay it. Michael Horton clarifies, “The curse of sin and death was a sentence imposed by God for the violation of his law; Satan’s role in the drama is that of seducer and prosecutor rather than judge or claimant in dispute. The truth in this conception is that God outwitted Satan and the rulers of this age by triumphing over them precisely where they celebrated God’s defeat.” This is what was captured eloquently by Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which we quoted last week in conclusion to our study. Just because Satan doesn’t understand God’s designs, doesn’t mean that it was deceived.
The article of Jesus’ descent into hell is both the extent to which Jesus carried our penalty (Calvin’s view) and the victory over Satan on our behalf (Bird). Both are true in light of what the Creed affirms in this article, and rich in meaning for the believer. Through this those who trust in the atoning sacrifice of Christ can be sure that he bore our full punishment in himself, and through this conquered the powers of darkness on our behalf. This is a comforting article in the Creed, and ought to cause us to glory in our Redeemer.
Next week we will look at the second part to this article, and that is concerning Jesus' resurrection from the dead, which I titled "Jesus' victory over death."
 I have kept the traditional wording “hell” rather than the new versions “into the place of the dead” for the sake of interest. We must now explain what is meant by “hell”.
 I initially started writing this as an entirety, but realised that it needed two sessions to cover it all in depth.
 Heidelberg Catechism, Q44.
 See Packer, J.I. 1994. Growing in Christ. Wheaton: Crossway Books, pg. 56.
 See Calvin, J. Institutes of the Christian Religion. II:XVI:8: “Now it appears from ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches… From this we may conjecture that it was inserted after a time, and did not become customary in the churches at once, but gradually.” (in Battles, F.L. transl. & McNeil, J.T. ed. 1960. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pg. 512.
 Aquinus, T. Summa Theologica. III: LII: 1.
 Bird, M.F. 2016. What Christians Ought to Believe. Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 148.
 Packer, J.I. 1994. Growing in Christ. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 56.
 Bird, pg. 148.
 Ibid, pg. 145.
 He refers to Revelation 20:14 which states explicitly that “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.”
 Ibid, pg. 144.
 Ibid, pg. 145-146.
 Horton, M. 2011. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 501-502.
I am the pastor/elder of a small suburban church on the outskirts of Cape Town. I enjoy coffee, theology, and fresh air. We are grateful to have all three in abundance.