The most controversial part of the Apostles Creed is the statement “He descended into Hell.” It’s amazing how much hate this statement gets from Christians; but, I am hear to tell you that it is crucial to the understanding of the nature of Christ, the atonement, and the resurrection of the dead.
In Christian theology, the belief in Heaven and Hell is crucial. While there are many that deny Heaven, Hell, or both, the Bible teaches that the righteous go to eternal life and the unrighteous to eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9). The belief that God has no wrath or punishment upon the sinner is not found in the Bible. Christ paid the price of dying, death, hell, and God’s wrath in our place.
The basic teaching of “He descended into Hell”
The simplest explanation can be found in the Westminster Larger Catechism.
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 hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
Westminster Larger Catechism Question 50
Simply put, Christ died and stayed dead for 3 days.
But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
(Mat 12:39-40 NAS)
The Roman Catholic Catechism states;
The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church Article 5 #632
Now Christians will be appalled at this saying God cannot be present in hell. So this begs the question, Can God be present in Hell?
Omnipresence: God sees and is present in Hell
It is important to know that the nature of God is Omnipresent. That is to say, God is everywhere and has no boundary. Even in the depths of Hell.
Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there.
(Psa 139:7-8 NAS See also Amo 9:2 NAS)
And another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
(Rev 14:9-10 NAS)
Those in Hell will not only see God and those righteous in His glory, God will be present in their torment. They will have an ever reminder of God in plain view.
The punishment for sin is the sentence of death
We die as result of our sin. Not just dying; but, remaining dead as well. It’s true that Christ had to die in order to satisfy the requirement of God’s Law. He also had to be dead. The penalty for sin is the legal, judicial, sentence of death required by God’s Law. Death is a permanent condition and not a one time event. The point the Bible clearly makes is that while people will certainly die, the outcome is that they will remain dead forever (Unless God raises them from the dead).
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Rom 6:22-23 NAS)
“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?
(Mat 23:33 NAS)
It’s not like when Christ died He went poof into thin air and disappeared. Christ paid the penalty of not only dying on the cross; but, remaining under the power of death for 3 days.
Christ paid the penalty of dying and of death. He promises us eternal life. The Sin that He died for was not His own. It was ours. The sentence He suffered was our sentence, not His. So He is not the sinner, we are.
indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us,
(2Co 1:9-10 NAS)
knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
(Rom 6:9-10 NAS)
The penalty for our sin is not only dying, its remaining dead.
Judgment begins at death
At the moment someone dies, God’s final judgment goes into effect.
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment
(Heb 9:27 NAS)
God’s judgment is His wrath. Many people have a hard time with this but the Bible is clear.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. (Rom 5:8-9 NAS)
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
(John 3:36 NAS)
Christ saved us from the wrath of God by dying and being dead for 3 days in our place.
Sheol and Hades the same place
The meaning of the Old Testament word “Sheol” and New Testament word “Hades” are the same.
For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.
(Psa 16:10 NAS)
Because Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.
(Act 2:27 NAS)
Sheol" is the Hebrew word and “Hades” is the Greek word. Now the Bible shows that the physical body goes to the grave but the soul goes to Sheol or Hades.
And he laid his body in his own grave, and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!”
(1Kin 13:30 NAS)
He keeps back his soul from the pit, And his life from passing over into Sheol.
(Job 33:18 NAS see also Psa 89:48)
Christs body went in the grave (John 19:42) and His soul went to Sheol or Hades to Hades (Act 2:27).
Hades, hell, sheol described with the same attributes
Hell, Hades, and Sheol have the same descriptions. The Bible does not make a distinction in the experience of those who go there. They are described as a fire and darkness.
And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. “And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’
(Luk 16:23-24 NAS)
And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire,
(Mar 9:43 NAS) See also (Jam 3:6 NAS)
For a fire is kindled in My anger, And burns to the lowest part of Sheol, And consumes the earth with its yield, And sets on fire the foundations of the mountains
(Deu 32:22 NAS) See also (Song 8:6 NAS)
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment;
(2Pe 2:4 NAS)
If I look for Sheol as my home, I make my bed in the darkness;
(Job 17:13 NAS)
Nowhere does the Bible teach that Hades, Sheol, or Hell are paradise. Therefore, the conclusion we can only come to is that Christ went into the fire and darkness that occurs at death.
This does not mean He did not go to Paradise. Christ is God. He was able to go to Paradise and Hades during His death.
For further information, read about the teaching of a Heavenly place in Hades or Hell called "Abraham’s Bosom"
The nature of Christ as fully God and Man
As stated in the explanation of "I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord", Christ is both fully God and man, inseparable. The Roman Catholic Catechism adds light to the understanding of Christs, "descent into Hell."
By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death.” (Heb 2:14)
In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead . . ..
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church Article 5 #636 – 637
The teaching that "He descended into Hell" is an important doctrine that Christ, while dead, did not cease to be God and that He paid the sentence of death for us. To read about the teaching that Christ’s Spirit going to Paradise and Body staying in Hades, read the article about “Abraham’s Bosom.”
Christ fully God and Indestructible
Because Christ is God, He is indestructible and cannot be held by the power of death.
Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil;
(Heb 2:14 NAS)
And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.
(Act 2:24 NAS)
who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life.
(Heb 7:16 NAS)
Christ being the radiance of God’s glory can withstand the brightest of any fire. He stood with Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in the fiery furnace that instantly killed Nebuchadnezzar’s men (Dan 3:19-22). He was in the burning bush that Moses saw and yet unscathed (Exo 3:2). He can be in the darkest of places and yet Illuminate everything with His presence.
And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. . .
(Heb 1:3 NAS)
And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (Rev 22:5 NAS)
Christ can stand in the full Glory of God. That which would obliterate a created human, Christ can stand in God’s presence with no harm to His person. Christ, who is God, can bear His own wrath.
So Christ can fully be our savior, He can really understand all aspects of life and death that humans go through.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
(Heb 4:14-15 NAS)
Christs body did not decay
The primary attribute of death is decay and corruption. Though our bodies decay and go to dust, Christs body is indestructible. He was dead yet did not decay. His body was preserved whole until His resurrection.
“Therefore He also says in another Psalm, ‘Thou wilt not allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.’ “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers, and underwent decay; but He whom God raised did not undergo decay.
(Act 13:33-37 NAS See also Act 2:27, 31)
Preaching to the Spirits in Hell
The Roman Catechism teaches that, when Christ was dead and in the tomb, He was in Hades or Hell preaching the gospel to those who were dead prior to Christs crucifixion. The Roman Catholic Catechism states,
“The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.
Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church #634 – 635
One section in the Bible that the writers of the Roman Catechism get this teaching from 1st Peter.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.(1Pe 3:18-20 NAS)
For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
(1Pe 4:6 NAS)
Another section of the Bible that is used to support this is found in John chapter 5.
Truly, truly, I say to you, [i]a time is coming and even now has arrived, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. (John 5:25, 28-29)
The John chapter 5 passage poses a difficulty as it is apparently referring to the last judgment and not when Christ was dead and buried. Christ preaching to the spirits in hades or hell is a common view in the church. This view is not being taught in this article. For a Biblical analysis on the teaching that Christ preached to the spirits of the dead, read Did Jesus preach the gospel to spirits in hades and raise them to heaven?