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Doctrine of Jesus’ Descent into Hell

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Last week at The Haven, someone brought up the question “Did Jesus descend into hell as stated in the Apostles’ Creed?” This is an often ‘debated’ or talked about subject matter. There were several opinions stated at the table. Following that, I decided I would see what Calvin had to write in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. I will note some points which I highlighted and would like to leave the comments below open for discussion. When discussed, please provide Biblical proof texts and/or book references which provide you with your thoughts/convictions. I suggest purchasing a copy of his Institutes, but if you have not one, here is an online version.

Calvin’s Institutes (Book II, Chapter XVI, Section 8-12)

8. Descended Into Hell

In his opening remarks, he calls states, “Nevertheless, in setting forth a summary of doctrine a place must be given to it, as it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter.”

Writing about the Creed as a whole he states, “the noteworthy point about the Creed is this: we have in it a summary of our faith, full and complete in all details; and containing nothing in it except what has been derived from the pure Word of God… . if it [the ‘descended into hell part’] be left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.”

He then provides a brief reason why “hell” does not denote “grave”.

9. Christ in the Nether World?

This particular section deals with an interpretation of Christ descending to the souls of the patriarchs who had died under the law…

10. The “Descent Into Hell” as an Expression of the Spiritual Torment that Christ Underwent for Us

He writes, “But we must seek a surer explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ’s descent into hell… . If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual.” Calvin provides his interpretation of Isaiah 53:5 as such, “By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge – submitting himself even as the accused – to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All – with this one exception: ‘He could not be held by the pangs of death’ (Acts 2:24).

“The point 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 in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.

11. Defense of this Explanation from Scripture Passages

This section is a must read as it provides more Scripture proofs to back his convictions. In summary, Calvin writes, “This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was ‘stricken and afflicted’ by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God.

12. Defense of the Doctrine Against Misunderstandings and Errors

He writes of those who misinterprete and malign God’s Word and claim that “it is unworthy to attribute to Christ something evil of itself… . Christ in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning (Hebrews 4:15). There is no reason why Christ’s weakness should alarm us. For he was not compelled by violence or necessity, but was induced purely by his love for us and by his mercy to submit to it… . they do not recognize in Christ a weakness pure and free of all vice and stain because he held himself within the bounds of obedience.”

Calvin closes this section and this topic with several to-thinks,

  • Have you ever earnestly considered whatit is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s Judgment? He stood accused before God’s judgment seat for our sake
  • For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by who he cried out that he had been forsaken

I trust that there will be some commenting here with questions. I trust that there will be some commenting on here who have studied this much greater than my own mind can take me and provide additional thoughts on that text. I trust that we will all walk away from this study understanding and seeing a greater, larger, God than we currently have of him.

Soli Deo Gloria!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, September 23, 2008 2:18 pm

    You don’t know how many times I get asked this question as a pastor. Basically there are three options for “descended into Hell”.

    1) Local Descent Theory – Jesus went to the actual location biblically called Hell. This occurred after his crucifixion and before his resurrection. (Roman Catholic View)

    2) Jesus Suffered Hell on the cross for sinners – Jesus underwent the punishment of Hell–separation from God due to sin–on behalf of sinners. (Isaiah 53:5, 2 Cor 5:21) This is certainly true but is it what the Apostle’s Creed is trying to say? (view of Calvin and Heidelberg Catechism [Q 44])

    3) Jesus was really dead. Hades is a very diverse term biblically and can mean everything from the location of eternal punishment of the ungodly to the grave–or really dead. Acts 2:31 uses hades this way speaking of the grave/death. (view of the Westminster Confession [LC Q50])

    I agree that view 2 is true and incredibly important. Jesus suffered the punishment of Hell for me on the cross. But I think view 3 is what the Apostles Creed is saying. It matches the use of Hades in Acts 2:31. It also matches the logical progression of the Creed paralleling “the third day he arose again from the grave”. He was really dead and then he was really alive.

    Those are my two cents. I think Calvin was theologically correct but I don’t think that is what the Apostle’s Creed was saying.

    You can also check out my friend Ligon Duncan’s sermon on that phrase of the Apostle’s Creed.

  2. B.S. Dinkins permalink
    Tuesday, September 23, 2008 7:35 pm

    As humbly as I know how, I would assert upon further review that 1 Peter 3:16 is not a sufficient text for any such understanding of Christ’s literal “presence in hell.” The text does not take us there. There are, however, numerous other scriptures pointing to the cup of God’s wrath that God did not see fit to remove from Jesus in that solemn prayer in the garden. This cup Jesus willingly accepted for the joy set before Him, and in doing so endured every terrible reality which constitutes Hell. The larger question beneath the surface has yet to be asked. How shall we define Hell?

  3. lisa ransdell permalink
    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 6:41 am

    Psalms 139 is in accordance with Ephesians 4:9-10. The Jews believed that the lower parts of the earth were the womb. So when it says that Jesus descended it means: He was in heaven (1 John) descended (born to earthly mother) and ascended (died and resurrected). This is also what hed was telling Nichodemus when he said done had to be born of water (earthly birth) and spirit (spiritual baptism) and then in John 3:13 Jesus himself says that he descended from heaven-how could he descend to hell before his death? Then read Job 21 for verifacation of his body burial remaining in the tomb .
    I will admit that 1 Peter 3 is an obscur passage. I do not believe that Jesus preached to spirits of humans for the Bible never concedes to a second chance after death. We have to get it right the first time.

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