Friday, April 27, 2012

Did Jesus Go to Hell?

 By Pastor Matthew Everhard

The Apostle’s Creed says…

He suffered under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into Hades  
On the third day, He rose again…

What do we mean by "He descended into Hades"? Did Jesus go to hell after the cross? As to His mortal body, this is an easy question. It remained in the grave. But what about His soul? Did Jesus go to hell during that “Silent Saturday” between crucifixion and resurrection? The Apostles' Creed seems to suggest that He did. This is an interesting point in our theology, as we confess these lines each Lord's Day. 

First of all, let’s remember that all Creeds are subservient to Scripture. Actually the AC rose out of the teaching of the Apostles but did not come from the pen of any one Apostle. It was an early church confession, probably a proto-baptismal formula. The first occurrence being in the early 200’s AD.

What was called the “Old Roman Creed” simply said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Christ Jesus His Son , our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh.”

Irenaeus (130-200) records for us an early form of the AC in his writings. We know that “He descended to hades/hell” was NOT in the earliest manuscripts, and did not appear until about 390 almost 200 years after the first version. Ironically, some versions at that time had “He was buried” and others “He descended to Hades,” (the Greek translation of the Hebrew sheol, meaning the state of death, or the grave). This suggests that both lines meant the same thing. Only the 390AD version had both.This troublesome line did not appear in other manuscripts again until almost 700AD.

We then enter into another problem. If Jesus went to hell, was it to suffer more on behalf of sinners? Was the cross not sufficient? We must eliminate this possibility from consideration because that would make His vicarious suffering on the cross insufficient for our atonement. We cannot go that direction. No further punishment needed to be made.

John Calvin writes, “Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine justice. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.” (Institutes 2.16.10).

Thus, Calvin indicates that the phrase “He descended into Hades” is completely appropriate and worthy of our confession, provided that we understand this to be a summary statement of what precedes it: Jesus “descended into hell/hades” is a summary of the full wrath of God placed upon Christ in his suffering death and burial. In other words, "suffered" + "died" + "buried" = full wrath of God (descended into Hell). 

The Westminster Confession, too, avoids interpreting the Creed as a literal descent into the fires of hell. Question #50 asks, "Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?
A. 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.

Although many Reformed churches profess the AC, most theologians in our tradition do not view this line to indicate a literal descent into hell, but rather that Jesus bore the full brunt of God's wrath and anger for us.

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Follow him on Twitter @matt_everhard. 

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