(The weel’s sermon text is 1 Peter 3:18-22. There are different interpretations of its meaning.
Tim Helm, our Director of Children’s Ministry, shares a defense of one such view.)
If you have ever read the Apostle’s Creed (which by the way I would suggest all Christians make a habit of doing), you may have come across a peculiar phrase in the confession that simply states: “He descended into hell.” These words, spoken of Jesus, follow phrases that we as Christians would normally confess: that He suffered under Pontius Pilate, that He was crucified, died, and was buried, and later the statement that he rose again on the third day. But what are we to make of the words, “He descended into hell,” which, I assume for most Christians, makes us very uncomfortable saying? I want to propose to you today why I think we can rightly confess this line in the creed.
In today’s passage, we come across some verses that are possibly the hardest to interpret in the New Testament. I am reminded of when Peter suggests some of Paul’s writings were tough to understand (II Peter 3:16); I believe that we can say the same thing of Peter’s letters too! I Peter 3:18-20 speaks of Christ’s suffering, His death, being made alive in the spirit, and making proclamation to the spirits in prison. In the short space that I have, I will explain what I think this means, what it surely does not mean, and give some evidences from scripture, and church history.
WHAT THIS MEANS
I love how Matthew Emerson defines this forgotten doctrine:
“The doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead holds that after Christ’s death, his body remained in the grave and his soul remained in the place of the (righteous) dead, until his resurrection, not suffering but proclaiming the victory achieved by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead. This did not extend the offer of salvation to those who had already died, but it was a sign of hope to the righteous and a sign of judgment to the unrighteous.”
The confession that Christ descended to the dead is a statement about what Christ was doing between his death and his resurrection. As one writer put it, “Jesus doesn’t simply know what it’s like to die. He knows what it’s like to be dead.” All orthodox Christians (per the Nicene Creed) confess that the Son, the second person of the trinity, did not just occupy a human body, but that He actually took on a human nature, comprised of body and soul (more on that later). Though we confess that in Christ’s divine nature He is omni-present, we must also confess the spatial reality of Christ’s human nature (a reason, by the way, that we do not hold to a Roman Catholic view of communion).
So, what happened to Jesus’ human soul when He was dead? The confession, and I believe scripture, states that He was present in the place of the righteous dead proclaiming, as another writer put it, “the regime change.” I think that, contextually, being “made alive in the spirit” is not a reference to the resurrection work of the Holy Spirit, but that Jesus’ spirit was alive in hell, and that Christ proclaimed the message of victory over demons (the spirits) who are in prison after the events of Genesis 6 (see also Jude 6-7).
WHAT THIS DOES NOT MEAN
I think a quick word about what this confession does not mean is in order as well. Confessing Christ’s descent to the dead does not mean that Christ suffered in the torments of hell, it does not affirm the false doctrine of purgatory, and it also does not teach a post-mortem salvation opportunity. None of these three false beliefs can be found in scripture, and they actually contradict scripture and require extra-biblical support. Christ confessed on the cross that today He would be in “paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul confessed that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8). Scripture also rejects a salvation opportunity after death (Luke 16 and Hebrews 9:27).
So what scripture is there to support the claim that Christ descended into hell? I believe first we must properly define what we mean by hell. I do not believe that hell is the best iteration of what the creed confesses, and many have instead translated this phrase as “He descended to the dead.” While I think proper understanding can lead us to confess either, I do think some of the confusion comes from this word. Hell, according to scripture, is not actually the eternal place of the damned. Hang in with me. Revelation 20:14 states, “Then Death and Hades (literally: Hell) were thrown into the lake of fire.” Without being overly technical, scripture is actually clear that the Lake of Fire is the eternal place of the damned, whereas Hell is a holding place for the unrighteous until the time of final judgment (see Matthew 25). Throughout the Bible, we see the terms Sheol, Hades, Abaddon, and Gehenna describing this place, and both the righteous and unrighteous are described as going down to here.
So, what is this place? I believe our answer lies in Luke 16. In this parable (the only parable that assigns names to characters, by the way), we see a post-death territory, before Christ’s ascension, called Abraham’s Bosom and Hades, which I propose speaks to the place of the righteous dead and the place of the unrighteous dead respectively. With a divide that cannot be crossed, one side is the “Paradise” that Christ speaks of on the cross, where the thief would be with him. Some Old Testament passages may refer to Christ’s presence in this place after his death (Psalm 6:5, Isaiah 14:10, for instance). One writer states that even if you do not affirm this view, regardless of what “Paradise” meant for Old Testament saints, it sure was different in that Christ was not yet present. Usually, those who defend that Jesus descended to the dead also confess that at Christ’s ascension, those who were in him were brought into heaven (while the unrighteous remain in Hades awaiting their judgment). In other words, the holding place for the righteous was temporary (poor Abel waited the longest!) and, since Christ’s descent, is no longer in use. Christ’s descent is actually the beginning of His ascent, as He conquers the three realms of the dead, earth, and the heavens.
Just a few quick references for more study – Peter himself in Acts 2 quotes Psalm 16:10 in reference to the resurrection, saying God will not abandon the soul of His Holy One to Sheol. Jesus says of Himself in Matthew 12:40 that the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. And let me simply quote these two verses: “But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will go up into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” (Romans 10:6-7).
Outside of the creed itself, what does church history lend us as far as a defense of this doctrine?
“This basic threefold importance of Christ’s descent—solidarity in experiencing death as all humans do, proclaiming victory to all the dead, and releasing the OT saints—was virtually ubiquitous in the early church from the second century onward. From Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian to Augustine, Ephrem the Syrian, and Maximus the Confessor, early Christians wholeheartedly, clearly, and repeatedly affirmed the view of the descent described above.” – Matthew Y. Emerson
- Though some debate exists over when the clause “He descended to the dead” was added to the Apostles Creed (with some saying it does not appear until the 7th century), this is not entirely accurate. Many copies of the creed from its inception actually do include the line, and early church commentaries on the creed that do not include this phrase still affirm all of the same doctrine just summed up under, “he was buried.” It was in refutation of the heresy of Apollinarianism (the belief that Jesus’ divine nature just possessed a human body, with no soul), that the line was specifically clarified (a common practice of the church councils too – some doctrine is implied and thought obvious until someone comes along and questions it, requiring specific statements to be added; this is true even of the Baptist Faith & Message).
- In the medieval age, doctrines of purgatory and post-mortem salvation were introduced, creating confusion of the clause. Though Calvin and Luther both rejected Roman Catholic additions to the meaning, Luther and other reformers went back and affirmed what the church fathers affirmed.
- Some modern pastors and theologians who hold this view: John MacArthur, Al Mohler.
If you take anything away from this word, please hear me that this issue is beyond a tertiary issue. I do not think that Christians should divide over this issue, however, since my position is a minority position, I did want to give a brief introduction to why I think it is an orthodox and evangelical position. I lament that I could not write more proof, as I had to hold back a lot, but allow me to point you to some helpful resources:
- “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday – Matthew Y. Emerson