Christ’s Descent into “Hell” (Part 1)

For many people, the Apostles’ Creed is a regular part of their worship life. In confirmation instruction, we are taught what each line of the creed means; but if there is one line that is quickly glossed over, it is this: “He descended into hell”. It is through the Apostles’ Creed that most of us become first aware of Jesus’ descent into hell. Though curious, we may not ever get much information about it, and eventually most people just let it go. We do ourselves a disservice if we do that, however. In the next several blog entries, I want to talk about why this line appears in the creed and how Jesus’ descent fits in the overall story of what God has done for people.  It is interesting and important aspect of the work of God.

This topic is far more understandable if you have already come to some understanding of what Sheol is and the confusion that exists over what to call Sheol in English.   So if you haven’t read the blogs I posted back in August and September, you need to do so first. You should be able to get to them through the calendar on the right.  I stand opposed to calling Sheol, “Hell”, considering our modern connotation. Still, most English translations of the Apostles’ Creed say either, “He descended into Hell” or “He descended to the dead”. This should sound familiar to you. Often Sheol is translated as “Hell” or “grave”.

What did the original say in Latin? It says that Jesus “descendit ad inferos”. Literally, “He descended to the lowest place” or “He descended to the underworld”. Given what we discussed previously about Sheol, clearly this is saying that Jesus descended to Sheol.

There is a shockingly wide variety of understandings when it comes to Christ’s descent “into hell”. Here is the spectrum of beliefs as far as I have found them, starting with probably the most common:

  • What? Do you mean that we believe that?
  • The descent simply means that he was buried. (Liberal)
  • The descent refers to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. (Reformed)
  • Jesus descended to Hell to proclaim His victory. (Lutheran)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to proclaim His victory. (Various)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to pay the final price for sin. (Some Roman)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to free the Old Testament righteous. (Roman)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to proclaim the Gospel to Old Testament damned and save some of them. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to liberate everybody, both the righteous and the unrighteous. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to liberate everybody and basically destroy it. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Any combination of the answers above.

There is also a difference in regard to the importance that various groups assign to the descent. Eastern Orthodoxy makes Christ’s descent critical to both theology and liturgical life. Roman Catholics regard the doctrine as important, but modern Catholic theologians want to de-emphasize it. Lutherans acknowledge the reality of Christ’s descent, but consider the purpose of the descent to be too unclear to establish it doctrinally and not important enough to explore. The Reformed and liberal theologians find ways to dismiss or demythologize this part of the story.

So can anything be definitively known about Christ’s descent or should we just stay away from this part of the story and wait until we get to Heaven for answers? What Christ did after His death does not change what we are to do as His disciples. Still, it is a part of the story of Christ and potentially has some explanatory power on several levels. For this reason it merits our exploration, even if we can’t settle all disputes. Ignorance, then, is not a good choice even if it is a popular one.

I hope you will continue to follow this discussion.  You might be surprised at how many references and possible references exist in the Bible.

Author: tdwenig

Tom is the Senior Pastor of the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Evansville, IN. He has served his congregation since 2000. He has a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO

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