Question: In the Apostles Creed we say “He descended into Hell”. What are the Scripture verses that indicate Christ descended into Hell, and for what purpose? A few of us have had several discussions about this and we would appreciate your insights.
Answer: To begin with it is important to note that Christ’s descent into hell is not part of his “State of Humiliation,” but of his “Exaltation.” That fact will help to understand more fully the primary Scripture passage used to support the doctrine and the purpose of the Descent.
I Peter 3: 18-20 is the primary passage describing the event and its purpose: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit (18) by which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison;(19) which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”(20)
The reason I mentioned the “Descent into hell” as part of Christ’s exaltation is that most people when reciting the Apostles’ Creed assume that the descent into hell was the conclusion of his suffering, but verse 19 says that he went and “preached” to the spirits in prison after being made alive by the Spirit.
The question then is, what did he preach? It is evident from the context that he did not descend to preach the Gospel. He preached the Law; two Bible passages will confirm this. 1) “…if you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sins.” (John 8:24) 2)”And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) These passages indicate that there is no “second chance” to be saved once death occurs. This is confirmed by the reference to the Flood (1 Peter 3:20). The people at Noah’s time refused to hear Noah, a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). Christ appeared then in hell as their Judge whose word they had stubbornly refused to believe. These ungodly people had scorned him and now he is proclaiming his victory and that they deserved their eternal punishment. This proclamation is accusatory, not evangelical.
The “Descent” is also intended as a proclamation to the devil and his legions. Jesus says in Revelation 1:18 “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of death and hell.” The Devil doesn’t reign in hell either, Christ has the keys. Luther says that Christ took over the Devil’s pulpit. My own thought on the Revelation 1:18 passage is that John was smitten with the fear of death and hell and Jesus tells him not to be afraid because he (Jesus) is Lord there also. The apostle Paul enhances this truth in Philippians 2:8-11 when he says that Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death on the cross. This is why “God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, “ (the realm of devils and the damned) all will bow to him and confess that he is Lord. Like it or not they did bow and confess him as Lord.
Paul in Colossians 2:15 sheds light on this idea: “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” And Paul adds this in Ephesians 4:8: “…he led captivity captive.”
The following passage from the Confessions will put the finishing touches on the “Descent into hell” question and its implications.
“I believe in the Lord Christ, God’s Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this (Confession) the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; and we simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the Devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and acute thoughts as to how this occurred; for with our reason and our five senses this article can be comprehended as little as the preceding one, how Christ is placed at the right hand of the almighty power and majesty of God; but we are simply to believe it and adhere to the Word.”
There will be a final judgment. All of this is a foreshadowing of that event on the last day.