Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
He Descended Into Hell?
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10NKJV
Question 50 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?” It gives the answer, “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.” Last time we looked at the humiliation Jesus endured by continuing in the state of physical death from Friday evening until Sunday morning. Today we consider the meaning of the controversial phrase of the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.”
The Westminster divines unambiguously mark where they are setting forth their understanding of the Creed’s “He descended into hell,” by the text immediately preceding it: “which hath been otherwise expressed in these words.” Thus, we can know for certain that the Westminster Larger Catechism considered “He descended into hell,” as referring merely to Christ “continuing in the state of the dead and under the power of death till the third day.” So, according to Westminster Christ’s descending into hell simply means that he was really and truly dead (physically) until His resurrection on the third day. In support of their interpretation we note that the word translated “hell” in the English translation of the Apostles’ Creed refers ultimately to the Greek Word “hades”, which is itself the translation used in the LXX (the early Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the Hebrew word “sheol”. Now as used in Scripture, Sheol and Hades do not refer to the place of God’s wrath known as hell or the lake of fire, but to the “place” of the dead, or really the grave. When any persons die we could say they are in Sheol or Hades, meaning they are in the state of being dead with everyone else who has died. In saying persons are in Sheol or Hades, we are not addressing the question of whether or not they are in heaven or hell; we are just making the observation that the persons in question are not dwelling with the living but with the dead. The Scripture appears to agree with this understanding of Hades. For example: “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27, quoting Psa. 16:10). In typical Hebrew synonymous parallelism leaving my soul in Hades has the same meaning as allowing Your Holy One to see corruption. And so my soul being in Hades and my body decomposing refer to the same reality: a person who is dead.
On the other hand Calvin interpreted the Creed differently. He explains the phrase “He descended into hell” thusly: “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 vengeance... the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us... that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.” Here Calvin describes the necessity of Christ’s “feeling the weight of divine vengeance” in order to effect our atonement. This is the Biblical doctrine, not of Hades, but of Hell. Hell is the “place” where God’s infinite wrath is poured out on the damned for all eternity. Here Calvin is arguing theologically for the fact that Christ endured the fullness of Hell on the cross. This is one of the few places where the Westminster divines did not follow Calvin. How do we understand the phrase?
We could say that Calvin was right theologically in explaining that Christ satisfied God’s wrath on the cross and thereby He experienced the fullness of hell. We could also say that the Westminster divines were correct in explaining that the Creed does not say Hell but Hades and that in the Bible Hades merely refers to being dead. However, the earliest versions of the Apostles Creed do not contain the phrase “He descended into hell,” but leave it out, as does the 4th century Nicene Creed. Historically the phrase appears to have been added in the 8th or 9th century because of a popular doctrine at that time of a place called the limbus or limbo, which is neither heaven nor hell. Our Church has chosen to cut the Gordian Knot and leave the phrase out in accordance with the earliest versions of the Apostles Creed.