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For an exhaustive paper on this issue, read Rev. Danny Hyde’s “In Defense of the Descendit: A Confessional Response to Contemporary Critics of Christâ€™s Descent into Hell”
Song: “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” by Isaac Watts, 1707
“He allowed the devil to drag him into the depths of hell as if he were the most wicked sinner who ever livedâ€¦ Every demon in hell came down on him to annihilate himâ€¦ [Demons] tortured him beyond anything that anybody has ever conceivedâ€¦ [Christâ€™s] emaciated, poured out, little, wormy spirit down in the bottom of that thing [hell].” â€“ Kenneth Copeland, “What Happened from the Cross to the Throne,” cassette #02-0017, 1990)
Like Copeland, many evangelicals today believe that Jesus literally went to hell after his crucifixion. For what purpose? Another Word-Faith heretic, Benny Hinn, taught that Christ went to hell because he “knew the only way he would stop Satan was by becoming one in nature with him” (broadcast on Trinity Broadcasting Network, December 15, 1990). Roman Catholics say that he went to a place called limbus patrum where Old Testament saints like Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc., were held before Christ’s resurrection. Lutherans teach that Jesus went down to hell to declare his victory over death and sin and over Satan and his demons.
From where did all these false teachings come? Here, literalistic interpretation of a few Scripture texts again rears its ugly head:
Ephesians 4:9: “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” (cf endnote 2 below) Those who hold to the views above argue that the “lower regions of the earth” refer to hades or hell. But in context, Paul was talking about Jesus’ descent to earth and ascent to heaven, “he who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens” (Eph 4:10). Here, Paul uses Psalm 68, where God came down to be with his people at Mount Sinai and in the wilderness (Psa 68:7-8), and then ascended back into heaven “leading a host of captives” (Psa 68:18), even rebellious people whom Christ has redeemed from the earth. Jesus himself referred to his descent from and ascent back into heaven (John 3:13; 6:62).
The expression “the depths of the earth” comes from Psalm 139:15, where the psalmist was declaring how he was created by God in his mother’s womb. Two other texts, Isaiah 44:23 and Ezekiel 26:20, which use this phrase do not use it to refer to hell.
1 Peter 3:18-20a: “For Christ also sufferedonce for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in whichhe went and proclaimedto the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” This is one of the most misinterpreted texts in the Bible. The historic Protestant view, before all the false teachings arrived, is that the Spirit of Christ preached through Noah to disobedient people, who were now (that is, in Peter’s day) spirits in prison, that is, hell. Some even interpret this text to mean that Jesus preached to those in hell to give them a second chance to escape from hell into heaven.
The controversy over Jesus’ descent into hell stems from the Apostles’ Creed’s line that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell” (Latin descendit ad infernum). This Creed developed from a mid-3rd century creed called proto-R and then a 4th-century creed known as the Old Roman Creed (R). Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, solidified the Creed around 800. The Creed was developed in the early church in conjunction with doctrinal requirements for administering water baptism.
The descendit was not used in the early church until late 4th century. Thus, by that time, some creeds had the â€œburiedâ€ clause, while others had the â€œdescendedâ€ clause. For example, the Nicene Creed (325) has the “burial” of Christ, while the Athanasian Creed (430) has the “descent” only, which clearly shows that the â€œburialâ€ of Christ was regarded in the same vein as the â€œdescentâ€ of ChristÂ (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 1:21 n6).Â Thus, the early use of the descendit was as a graphic representation of Christâ€™sÂ burial.1
The historic Protestant view then developed from the early church view of a symbolic or metaphorical descendit.
Calvin writes in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that the “descent into hell” is an expression of the “severity of Godâ€™s vengeance to appease his wrath and 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” (2:16:10). Christ was our substitute, “put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge â€” submitting himself even as the accused â€” to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained” (Isa 53:5). In the Apostles’ Creed, the “descent” works in apposition1 with the “burial”:
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 Christâ€™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 (2:16:10).
Calvin also explained that because Jesus “bore the weight of divine severity, since he was ‘stricken and afflicted’ (cf Isa 53:5)… to appease the Father toward others… and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God,”Â he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psa 22:1; Matt 27:46) (2:16:10). But even if he felt “forsaken by God” in his cry, “he did not waver in the least from trust in his goodness… For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken” (2:16:12).
The figurative view of descendit espoused by Calvin and the majority of other Reformers is reflected in the 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions:
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 44 (1563):
Q. Why is it added: â€œHe descended into hell?â€
A. That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell (Psa 18:5, 116:3; Isa 53; Mt 26:36-46, 27:46; Heb 5:7-10).
Belgic Confession (1561) Article 21:
He presented Himself in our place before His Father, appeasing God’s wrath by His full satisfaction (Rom 4:25; Rom 5:8, 9; Rom 8:32; Gal 3:13; Col 2:14; Heb 2:9, 17; Heb 9:11-15), offering Himself on the tree of the cross, where He poured out His precious blood to purge away our sins(Acts 2:23; Phil 2:8; 1 Tim 1:15; Heb 9:22; 1 Pet 1:18, 19; 1 Jn 1:7; Rev 7:14), as the prophets had foretold (Lk 24:25-27; Rom 3:21; 1 Cor 15:3)… He suffered in body and soul (Psa 22:15), feeling the horrible punishment caused by our sins, and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground (Luke 22:44). Finally, He exclaimed, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? All this He endured for the forgiveness of our sins.
Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) 8.4:
This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake, which, that he might discharge, he was made under the law, and perfectly fulfilled it; endured most grievous torments immediately in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body; was crucified and died; was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption.
Westminster Larger Catechism (1647):
Question 49: How did Christ humble himself in his death?
Answer: Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross.
Question 50: Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
Answer: Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which has been otherwise expressed in these words, he descended into hell. [Note the equivalence here between Christ’s burial and descent into hell.]
Christ not “forsaken” by God?
As for his cry of being forsaken by God as he hung on the cross, there is another false teaching that God did not really abandon Christ, and Christ was not really saying that God literally abandoned him when he suffered and died on the cross.
This is a view designed to protect the integrity of the Holy Trinity, because some false teachers assert that the Godhead was ripped apart when the Father and the Son were separated on the cross. This is also a direct result of the above teachings of a literal descendit, and a misunderstanding of the two natures, divine and human, of Christ: If Christ had been abandoned by God, then God the Son and God the Father were “ripped apart” at the crucifixion. Louis Berkhof explains why this is a gross mis- understanding and an impossibility (Systematic Theology, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958, 339):
He was subject not only to physical, but also to eternal death, though He bore this intensively and not extensively, when He agonized in the garden and when He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In a short period of time He bore the infinite wrath against sin to the very end and came out victoriously. This was possible for Him only because of His exalted nature.
To say that God did not forsake and abandon Christ, and his wrath was not poured out on the Mediator is to do great damage to the historic Protestant doctrine of the substitutionary atonement (Isa 53:6; Gal 3:13), propitiation (1 John 2:2, 4:10), and satisfaction of God’s justice (Rom 3:25,26; Eph 5:2). For what purpose did he die on the cross except to appease an angry God and to satisfy his holy, just and perfect nature?
Christ’s human nature suffered the wrath of God, because it was humanity that sinned. But he also has to be an eternal being so he can bear God’s infinite wrath in a very short period of time. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 17 explains this more:
Q. Why must He also be true God?
A. That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of Godâ€™s wrath, and so obtain for and restore to us righteousness and life.
Berkhof then warns against making false conclusions as to separating the two natures of Christ and God’s love for Christ, beautifully expounding a rather difficult concept:
Eternal death in the case of Christ did not consist in an abrogation of the union of the Logos with the human nature, nor in the divine nature’s being forsaken of God, nor in the withdrawal of the Father’s divine love or good pleasure from the person of the Mediator. The Logos remained united with the human nature even when the body was in the grave; the divine nature could not possibly be forsaken of God; and the person of the Mediator was and ever continued to be the object of divine favor.
While Christ’s two natures are to be understood “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (Definition of Chalcedon), Berkhof affirms that “the human consciousness of the Mediator [had] a feeling of God-forsakenness” for a moment while God’s wrath was being poured upon him:
This implies that the human nature for a moment missed the conscious comfort which it might derive from its union with the divine Logos, and the sense of divine love, and was painfully conscious of the fulness of the divine wrath which was bearing down upon it.
Thus, cosmic signs of God’s wrath and his judgment on the earth were present as Jesus hung on the cross. Recalling the plagues on Egypt, darkness descended upon the land (Matt 27:45) because God turned his shining face away from his Son (Psa 27:9). A great earthquake split the rocks and opened the tombs in the city (Matt 27:51), because God’s anger was being poured out on the Savior (Psa 18:7).
But, Berkhof says, even when God’s wrath was being poured out on his Son’s human nature, “there was no despair, for even in the darkest hour, while He exclaims that He is forsaken, He directs His prayer to God.” This is why he can also invoke David’s prayer a few verses after his cry of being forsaken, “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” (Psa 22:24).
If there is one who should be called “a little wormy spirit,” it is each one of us miserable sinners who does not deserve the devotion of our Savior’s and Sovereign’s sacred head (from “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” by Isaac Watts, 1707).
1 For this account of the development of the Apostles’ Creed, I am much indebted to Rev. Danny Hyde’s paper, “In Defense of the Descendit: A Confessional Response to Contemporary Critics of Christâ€™s Descent into Hell,” Confessional Presbyterian, vol 3 (2007), 104-17.
2 Apposition is “a syntactic relation between expressions, usually consecutive, that have the same function and the same relation to other elements in the sentence, the second expression identifying or supplementing the first” (from dictionary.com). In “the lower regions, the earth” (Eph 4:9), the phrase “the earth” is in apposition with “the lower regions.”