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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

08 July 2005

He Descended into Hell

Q: I have a question about the Apostles’ Creed — in particular, the part that says, “He descended into hell.” Where in the Bible does it say that Jesus was in hell?

Q: Why is “He descended into hell” not in the Nicene Creed but in the other two Creeds?

The Descent into Hell by Durer

A: The Apostles’ and the Athanasian Creeds both confess Christ’s Descent into Hell. However, the Descent was not into torment, since the payment for our sins was completed on the cross. This is why Jesus could say, “It is finished.” His true agony was expressed in the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mt 27:46)” Jesus’ quote from Psalm 22 underscores the seriousness with which God views human transgression. He made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin for us (cf. 2 Cor 5:21) — and He then punished that sin with ruthlessness. Being abandoned by God must be the greatest torment that even Hell has to offer, yet Jesus willingly accepted this to bring us reconciliation with his Father.

1 Peter 3:18-22 directly addresses the event: “For Christ also suffered once 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 which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Evidently, He was alive but not out of the grave, and used this time to proclaim His victory in the heart of Satan’s domain.

Note Peter’s emphasis here — not so much the Descent into Hell, but Baptism. He illustrates by contrast that just as water saved Noah’s family in the Flood while drowning evildoers, so the water of Baptism saves us by incorporating us into the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul may also allude to the Descent when he writes, “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:15)”

Luther’s 1533 sermon at Torgau, excerpted in Friedrich Bente’s Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions [3.22mb PDF] “graphically describes the descent as a triumphant march of our victorious Savior into the stronghold of the dismayed infernal hosts.” Bente notes, “The two outstanding features of Luther’s sermon are that Christ descended into hell, body and soul, and that He descended as a triumphant Victor, and not in order to complete His suffering and the work of atonement.” Here follow some pertinent quotes:

Before Christ arose and ascended into heaven, and while yet lying in the grave, He also descended into hell in order to deliver also us from it, who were to be held in it as prisoners ... However I shall not discuss this article in a profound and subtle manner, as to how it was done or what it means to “descend into hell,” but adhere to the simplest meaning conveyed by these words, as we must represent it to children and uneducated people....

Therefore whoever would not go wrong or stumble had best adhere to the words and understand them in a simple way as well as he can. Accordingly, it is customary to represent Christ in paintings on walls, as He descends, appears before hell, clad in a priestly robe and with a banner in His hand, with which He beats the devil and puts him to flight, takes hell by storm, and rescues those that are His. Thus it was also acted the night before Easter as a play for children. And I am well pleased with the fact that it is painted, played, sung and said in this manner for the benefit of simple people. We, too, should let it go at that, and not trouble ourselves with profound and subtle thoughts as to how it may have happened....

Since we cannot but conceive thoughts and images of what is presented to us in words, and unable to think of or understand anything without such images, it is appropriate and right that we view it literally, just as it is painted, that He descends with the banner, shattering and destroying the gates of hell; and we should put aside thoughts that are too deep and incomprehensible for us.... But we ought ... simply to fix and fasten our hearts and thoughts on the words of the Creed ... in like manner I must not divide [the person of Christ] here either, but believe and say that the same Christ, God and man in one person, descended into hell but did not remain in it; as Ps. 16:10 says of Him.... By the word “soul,” He, in accordance with the language of the Scripture, does not mean, as we do, a being separated from the body, but the entire man, the Holy One of God, as He here calls Himself. But how it may have occurred that the man lies there in the grave, and yet descends into hell — that, indeed, we shall and must leave unexplained and uncomprehended; for ... we can only paint and conceive it in a coarse and bodily way and speak of it in pictures....

Such, therefore is the plainest manner to speak of this article ... that for us, through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed, for which purpose He died, was buried, and descended, — so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us, as He Himself says (Mt. 16:18)....

This sermon became a source for Article IX of the Formula of Concord, wherein both the Epitome and the Solid Declaration directly address Christ’s Descent into Hell.

As for the phrase not appearing in all the creeds, The Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles’ Creeds grew up independently. For many years, “experts” thought that the Apostles’ Creed was nowhere near so ancient as the apostolic times. Now, evidence mounts that much of its contents were used already among the second or third generation of Christians. While unlikely that the Twelve actually wrote it, those who put it together may have known the apostles; perhaps one or more even had some input on its early forms. This Creed entered the Western Church as a baptismal confession.

The Nicene Creed came in defense of orthodox Christianity against heresies, especially Christological heresies — most of all, Arianism, which denied the true and full divinity of Christ and His oneness with the Father. Thus, it deals with the interrelationships within the Trinity. Because they have different origins and different original audiences, the Creeds’ material doesn’t totally overlap.

Meanwhile, the Athanasian Creed, the last of the three great Creeds (or four, if you include the Te Deum) picked certain aspects from both while also adding some things neither included. Much of its closing reads like a direct quote from the Apostles’ Creed. For years, this Creed was not used much in general church services. Instead, it was sung in many monasteries as part of one of the early morning prayer offices.

ADDENDUM: Related posts include Creeds and Confessions and Athanasian Creed: Trinity, Good Works, and Salvation

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Lutheran Confessions and Bente's "Historical Introduction" are quoted from the Book of Concord site.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


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