Did Jesus descend into hell?
Students often ask me whether or not it is right to confess that Jesus Christ ‘descended into hell,’ as the Apostles’ Creed (in a relatively late addendum) states in the second article. I can understand their scepticism. After all, the doctrine is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, save for a few ambiguous passages (e.g., 1 Peter 3:19-20), and then there is that clear promise of Jesus to the thief on the cross: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43). And yet, week by week, large numbers of believers confess together that Jesus did in fact descend into hell.
Rather than jumping immediately to the question of whether this confession is correct, I’d first like to ask: what could the descent into hell mean? In other words, what have Christians assumed they are actually asserting when they make this perhaps counterintuitive confession?
A descent to suffering?
One assumption many of my students make regarding the descent is that Christ descended to suffer in hell. The twentieth century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, for example, claimed that Jesus descended precisely for this purpose on Holy Saturday, chiefly to experience genuine solidarity with the condition of sinful humanity. In the descent (or ‘going to the dead’), von Balthasar insists, ‘Christ takes the existential measure of everything that is sheerly contrary to God, of the entire object of the divine eschatological judgment[.]’
Von Balthasar’s theology is obviously sophisticated, but it is also rather innovative. To most theologians throughout church history, the idea that Jesus ‘gave himself’ to the condition of hell on Holy Saturday would have sounded precisely the opposite note of the more intuitive view. For the majority, Jesus descended to hell not to suffer, but to proclaim victory—to administrate what is known as ‘the harrowing of hell.’
The great medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas, for instance, envisioned Christ arriving in the darkest depths to flood them with light: ‘as He showed forth His power on earth by living and dying, so also He might manifest it in hell, by visiting it and enlightening it.’ It’s as if the redemption accomplished by the cross resounded throughout the universe like a sound wave, washing over all aspects of created existence—including the realm of the dead.
The Lutheran Formula of Concord (c.16) strikes a similarly victorious tone in the Solid Declaration (IX): ‘…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.’ In theological terms, the descent into hell is categorised not with regard to the Son’s ‘state of humiliation,’ but more accurately as the ‘state of exaltation’—a victory lap of sorts wherein the powers that once threatened us are personally exposed by the Lord as weak, defeated, and divested of all authority.
Taking the ‘hell’ out of hell?
But does this not take some of the bite out of confession? If Jesus had to undergo physical death on the cross in order to pave the way for resurrection, surely he had to undergo spiritual death (the so-called ‘second death’) as well—right?
Here, I believe we are pointed precisely to the suffering on the cross itself. It was on the cross that Jesus cried out those terrible words, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ It was there that Jesus experienced the full measure of God-abandoned-ness, the consequence of humanity’s aligning itself with that which God had always purposed to reject: sin.
John Calvin famously makes this point in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The suffering of the Son, Calvin insists, was not merely ‘bodily.’ Rather, it was suffering of a magnitude that no human being—in light of the resurrection—need experience any longer. Many humans undergo physical torture, but on the cross, Jesus underwent an ‘invisible and incomprehensible judgment,’ wherein his soul experienced ‘the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.’ In other words, Christ’s suffering was so complete—so extended to the furthest extreme of divine judgment—that the Evangelist can put that remarkable, final phrase on his lips: ‘It is finished.’
So did Jesus descend into hell? Well, Jesus’ victory does indeed extend to the furthest reaches of creation—and in that sense, hell was indeed visited by the victorious Messiah. And yet, in another sense, Jesus did experience the full consequences of human sin—on the cross. These are the realities to which the Apostles’ Creed directs my mind when I confess ‘descended into hell’ each week at church. And this is what I encourage you to meditate on this Holy Saturday.