“He descended into Hell” – Say What?

In the Apostles’ Creed, one of the chief creedal summaries of the Christian faith from the early church contains a much-disputed phrase – “he (Christ) descended into Hell.” Some say the creed with this phrase, others leave it out for various reasons. Interpretations from the early church vary but typically revolve around an actual underworld visit by Christ on Holy Saturday of Easter weekend. Others, citing lack of clear biblical support for this understanding, either omit the phrase or interpret it as affirming the reality of Christ’s death – “he descended to the dead.”

John Calvin, followed by Karl Barth, take a different tack. Not satisfied by the more “literal” views of the early church fathers, the rather obtuse redundancy of reading the phrase as affirming the reality of Christ’s death, they opt for a theological reading. Christ’s descent into hell is a metaphor for the time and place where he experiences the fullest extent of the godlessness of sinful humanity and the displeasure of God against such sinfulness – the cross as the summation of his life lived in faithfulness to God. Hanging on the cross was the nadir of Christ’s mission. Here his obedience, “even to death on a cross” (Phil.2:8), takes him to the farthest rim of the outer edges of the far country to which humanity’s separation and alienation from God had taken them. In this way the unfathomable mystery of Christ’s death on the cross merits the phrase “he descend into Hell”!

I follow the Calvin-Barth understanding of this phrase in the creed. Holy Saturday is not a time for wondering “Where’s Jesus” or for simply mourning his demise. It is time to reflect on the depth of the mystery of what transpired between God and humanity on this holy weekend. The Heidelberg Catechism (16th century) captures some of the “cash value” (if I may be forgiven such a crass image) of this understanding for reflection in its answer to what “he descended into Hell” means:

“That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment by the unspeakable anguish, pains, and terrors which he suffered in his soul both on the cross and before.”


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