The Strangest Part of the Creed: He Descended into Hell

I Peter 3:18-19

April 4, 2004 | Ray Pritchard

What happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection? We know his body was buried, but what about his spirit? Where was he and what was he doing between his death at 3:00 p.m. on Friday and his resurrection sometime before sunrise on Sunday morning? Christians have wondered about these things for 2,000 years. The questions are partly biblical, partly theological, and partly personal. Since death is a mystery to all of us, we naturally want to know what happened to Jesus while he was in the tomb. The short answer is, we don’t know for sure. As we will see in this sermon, the Bible offers some hints that help us, it gives us some clues that point us in certain directions, but it’s impossible to be dogmatic. Or perhaps I should say, it’s possible to be dogmatic in several different directions.

So we begin with the answer offered by the Apostles’ Creed: Jesus “descended into hell.” The very moment we say those words, a host of questions arise: In what sense did Jesus “descend” into hell? When did this happen? And what “hell” did he descend into? Then there are other, larger questions: What does the phrase mean? Why is it in the Creed? Is it biblical? Do we believe it? If we don’t believe, why do we say it? On that last point, we can observe that not every version of the Apostles’ Creed includes this phrase. Even among the churches that say the Creed every Sunday, you will find some churches that include the phrase and others that don’t. Mark Todd told me that he never knew about theological controversy until he learned about the Apostles’ Creed as a child. Growing up in the home of a Presbyterian pastor, he heard the Creed every Sunday, and it always included “he descended into hell.” But at one point his church had an associate pastor who didn’t believe in this particular phrase. So whenever that associate pastor led the worship service, he would say, “Let’s stand and recite the Creed. Today we will not descend into hell.”

So the phrase itself provokes controversy. Here are two other facts to consider. 1) The Bible nowhere explicitly says that Jesus descended into hell. That is, the phrase itself isn’t biblical. That doesn’t mean it’s not true or that we shouldn’t say it, but it does mean we can’t find a verse that says, “Jesus descended into hell.” 2) The earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed did not include this phrase. If you go back to AD 150-200, you can find early versions of the Creed, but they omit this phrase. It doesn’t appear for approximately 250-300 years. Then it became a standard part of the Creed. And it appears in most standard versions today. But the debate over its meaning and biblical foundation continues. Scholars have argued about this phrase for 2,000 years—and they continue to argue about it today.

So where does that leave us? Later in the sermon, I’m going to explain why I believe the phrase is both biblical and spiritually helpful. For the moment, let’s notice how the Creed uses a certain verb form to describe Jesus Christ. Most of the phrases are in the passive voice: “He was conceived … was born … was crucified … was buried.” These verbs describe things that happened to Christ or things that were done to him by others. But when the Creed comes to this phrase, it switches to the active voice: “He descended into hell.” Whatever else that means, the Creed tells us that Jesus did this of his own initiative. He who was the highest of the high, left heaven, came to earth, and in his death and burial, descended to the lowest depths of the universe. By using the active voice, the writers of the Creed make a strong statement about what Jesus did. Whatever the phrase “He descended into hell” means, it didn’t happen by accident, but by our Lord’s divine design. Wherever he went and whatever he did there, he went there and he did it on purpose.

In order to give us a biblical focus, let’s look briefly at three relevant passages of Scripture.

1) Psalm 139:7-8

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” The phrase “in the depths” translates the Hebrew word sheol, which the King James Version translates with the word “hell,” e.g. “If I make my bed in hell, you are there.” The early verses of Psalm 139 assure us of God’s omnipresence—wherever we go, he is already there, and there is no part of the universe—no matter how low or how dark or how distant it may be—where he is not already and always present.

2) Colossians 2:15

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” The phrase “powers and authorities” refers to the spiritual forces of wickedness, not to human rulers. By his bloody death on the cross, Christ triumphed over Satan and his demons in all their various ranks and titles. The cross was a decisive victory for the Son of God. He won the battle so convincingly that the outcome of the war can no longer be in doubt. To “disarm” someone means to take his weapons away. If a man has a gun pointed at you, he’s not disarmed until you take the gun away from him. As long as he has the gun (and sufficient ammunition), you’re in big trouble. When Jesus died on the cross, he took the guns and the ammo out of the hands of the demons. And he publicly humiliated them. Picture the Roman legions returning from a successful war. As they enter the city, vast throngs of women and children line the streets. On and on they march, a seemingly endless parade. Then come the victorious generals, each one accompanied by singers, dancers, and musicians. Finally at the end of the procession you spot a long line of weary, dirty, emaciated men. Their hands are tied, they shuffle one after another. They are the defeated soldiers, now brought back to be displayed as proof of Rome’s invincible power.

When Jesus died, something stupendous happened in the spiritual realm. Although it was invisible to the naked eye, it was seen by all the angels and the Old Testament saints. They watched as Jesus, like some conquering Old West hero, entered the infernal regions and disarmed the “bad guys” one by one. Then he marched them in full view of his Heavenly Father so that every created being would know that he had won the victory.

3) I Peter 3:18-19

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” One of my Greek professors at Dallas Seminary called this passage (I Peter 3:18-22) the most difficult in the New Testament. It is hard to translate and difficult to understand. Perhaps I should say it this way: It’s not difficult to translate the words per se, but it is extraordinarily difficult to understand what they mean. What exactly was Peter trying to say? One evangelical commentator noted that there are nine Greek words in verse 19—and scholars disagree about the meaning of all of them! After studying the passage again this week, I came away impressed and overwhelmed by the bewildering variety of interpretations. It’s fair to say that no one is certain about what Peter means—even though some people think they know for certain. The rest of us aren’t so sure. Verse 18 is clear as it stands. It’s a simple statement of substitutionary atonement: Christ died on our behalf to bring us to God. If Peter had stopped right there, we wouldn’t have any problems. But he continued in verse 19 by talking about Jesus being dead in the flesh and made alive by the Spirit. The NIV capitalizes the word “Spirit” so we will know Peter means the Holy Spirit. But many commentators (I lean in this direction) prefer to use a lower-case “s” and to translate it as “spirit,” meaning Christ’s human spirit. Then Peter says Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. After canvassing the various options, I think he means that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirit beings—demons who rebelled against God. Underline or circle the phrase “I think” because I’m expressing an opinion, not a certainty. And I’m not even going to go into the part about Noah, the ark and baptism. That can wait for another sermon.

Totally Dead

But there’s one more thing we need to do before we can begin to draw some conclusions. Here are three Bible words that will help us think about the phrase “he descended into hell.” First, there is the Hebrew word sheol. A very common word in the Old Testament, it refers to the shadowy realm of the dead. Sheol is where dead people go when they die. Sometimes it is translated as “grave.” Second, there is the Greek word hades, which to us means “hell” but in the New Testament, it is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol. Third, there is the Greek word gehenna, which always refers to the place we call “hell,” the place of fire and brimstone. It is the place of eternal torment. The word gehenna comes from the enormous trash dump in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem. Smoke and fire ascended from the dump day and night. It became a symbol for hell—the place of eternal suffering.

How does this apply to the Apostles’ Creed? When we hear that Jesus “descended into hell,” we automatically think of the word gehenna—the place of fire and smoke and suffering. But that’s almost certainly not what the writers of the Creed meant. They were not trying to say that Jesus entered the burning flames of hell. When the Creed uses the word “hell,” the real meaning is closer to sheol or hades. The Creed is telling us that when Jesus died, he fully entered the realm of the dead. He was truly and utterly and completely dead from a human point of view. You may recall that scene from the movie Princess Bride where the handsome hero has apparently died. But then he is taken to Mad Max, a local magician who assures his friends that the hero is not really dead. He’s only “mostly dead.” That was good news for the hero because there is a huge difference between “mostly dead” and “totally dead.” But when Jesus died, he was totally dead. What happens to us when we enter the realm of death happened to him when he died. He was not spared the pains of death in any way. That’s the main point the Creed is making.

With all of that as background, let’s consider what this strange phrase can’t mean, what it might mean, and what it must mean.

I. What it can’t mean

No matter what else we say about the phrase, “He descended into hell,” there are three things it cannot mean.

First, it can’t mean that Jesus offered salvation to those who were already dead. Nothing in the Bible supports such a notion. There is no such thing as post-mortem salvation. Now is the day of salvation—II Corinthians 6:1-2. Today is the day when we must trust Christ as Savior. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The only chance we have to accept Christ comes when we are alive. Once we die, we must stand before God in judgment. Once a person goes to hell, he stays there forever. There is no mission work in hell.

Second, this phrase cannot mean that Jesus burned in the flames of hell. The very idea is revolting and without biblical foundation. Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins when he died on the cross, not after his body was buried.

Third, whatever else this phrase might mean, it can’t mean that Jesus did anything between his death and resurrection that added to his work on the cross. When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant the work of salvation had been completely accomplished. The price for sin had been paid in full. Nothing else could ever be added to the value of what he did on the cross.

II. What it might mean

In the Middle Ages various writers developed an elaborate doctrine called “the harrowing of hell.” Many people believed that between his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ went to the regions of darkness and proclaimed his victory over the devil and the demons. This belief spawned some very creative painting by medieval and Renaissance artists. I found a reproduction on the Internet of one painting that shows a victorious Christ standing over the mouth of an enormous serpent. He is rescuing various Old Testament saints from the “mouth of the serpent.” The value of this doctrine is that it answers the question, “What happened to the Old Testament saints when they died?” While we know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), it seems that Old Testament believers did not always have that same assurance. Some suggest that Christ liberated the righteous souls who were in the “paradise” part of Hades and thus “led captivity captive” (see Ephesians 4:8-10, KJV). The Scofield Reference Bible made this view popular a generation ago. The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 seems to lend support for that view. Richard Phillips adds this comment: “This whole scene takes place in hell, that is, in Hades. On one side of hell, as it were, is paradise, where Abraham and Lazarus are. On the other side, beyond a great chasm, hell is really hell, and that is where the once greedy rich man now is. This also seems to agree with what Jesus said to the thief on the nearby cross who believed in Him: ‘Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”’ (Luke 23:43). Presumably, then, Jesus went to hell, proclaiming his victory to those given over for damnation, while actually staying in the paradise precincts.”

If you ask me if this is true, I will have to say that I don’t know. I think it’s a plausible inference from various Bible passages, but we can’t be certain. But there is another way to look at all of this. Perhaps our problem stems from having a myopic view of the death of Christ. We tend to focus on ourselves and what the cross means to us. But there are many passages that suggest that the cross of Christ changed everything in the universe—it had a cosmic impact that touched everything from the highest heights to the lowest depths. As Colossians 2:15 makes clear, the cross of Christ changed everything for Satan and his demons. Do not miss the larger point: The death of Christ brought startling changes in the spirit world, most of which remain hidden to us. I think the Bible gives us hints and glimmers of the truth, just enough to let us know that something monumental happened “behind the scenes” as a result of Christ’s death.

The death of Christ brought startling changes in the spirit world, most of which remain hidden to us.
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III. What it must mean

A. Christ fully experienced death

This is the primary meaning of “he descended into hell.” In his death he entered into the human experience of dying as much as any person who has ever lived. He knows what death is all about because he has been there, he entered the “House of Death” and he came out holding the keys in his hand (Revelation 1:18). A few days ago I found this wonderful statement by Dr. W. A. Criswell from a sermon he preached on Revelation 1:18:

When they nailed his feet to the tree, and when they nailed his hands to the wood, and when he entered into the dark gloom of the grave, there did he trample down forever the kingdom of death. And when he arose triumphant from it, he carried death as a captive chained to his chariot wheels.

I like that picture—death chained to the chariot wheels of Jesus. Our Lord could not have conquered death unless he fully entered into every dark part of the kingdom of death. Only then could he emerge victorious with the “keys” in his hand.

B. Christ fully defeated the devil

Here are five ways the devil was defeated by the cross of Christ:

1. His head was crushed—Genesis 3:15
2. His works were destroyed—I John 3:8
3. His power was broken—Hebrews 2:15
4. His demons were disarmed—Colossians 2:15
5. His doom was guaranteed—John 16:11

All this happened at the cross when God struck the mighty blow that left Satan defeated, disarmed and disgraced. That’s why we like to say, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” I love the story of Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the late 1800s, who awoke one night because he felt his bed shaking. Thinking it was caused by a thunderstorm, he looked outside but saw no clouds in the sky. “I woke up and looked, and there was Satan standing at the foot of my bed. Satan himself was shaking my bed. I looked at him and said, ‘Oh, it’s only you,’ and rolled over and went back to sleep.”

What should this truth mean to us?

1) We need not fear death.

Death is like a dark room that frightens us because we don’t know what’s in there. The Creed tells us that Jesus has gone into every dark room before us. The light may not be on, but Jesus is there saying, “Come on in, I am here and it is safe.” An old hymn by Richard Baxter reminds us that

Christ leads us through no darker room
Than he went through before.
He that unto God’s kingdom comes,
Must enter by this door.

We all die sooner or later, but Christ has transformed death for the believer. He has taken the sting out of death so that while we die, we do not cease living. We stop living on this earth and immediately begin to live in the presence of our Lord in heaven.

We all die sooner or later, but Christ has transformed death for the believer.
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2) The work of salvation is absolutely complete.

Because Christ died for us and took our punishment, we cannot go to hell. Let me say that in a stronger way. It is utterly impossible for a true child of God to go to hell. It cannot happen, it will not happen. Our Lord descended into hell so that we might never go there. He took the curse for us so that the curse could never fall on us. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

3) The devil is now a toothless tiger.

Though he has great power and roams the earth like a roaring lion, and though he makes great pretensions and may at times fill us with dread, his power has been broken once and for all. Hear the words of Martin Luther: “Through Christ hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed … so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us.” All the enemies of Christ have been defeated. They remain on the battlefield, but the end has already been written. We know how the story ends. Jesus wins—and we win with him. The devil cannot defeat us because we are united with the Ultimate Champion—the Lord Jesus Christ.

All the enemies of Christ have been defeated. They remain on the battlefield, but the end has already been written.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

So we will let Martin Luther have the final word on this subject:

And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.

What is that “one little word” that brings the devil down? It is the name Jesus. He fought the fight, he stood his ground, on the cross he utterly defeated Satan, and he proved it by rising from the dead.

There is great hope for all those who struggle against sin. On Easter Sunday morning the word came down from heaven to the devil and all his demons: Turn out the lights, the party’s over. Do you feel defeated? Stand and fight. Do you feel discouraged? Stand and fight. Have you been tempted to give in? Stand and fight. Are you wavering between right and wrong? Stand and fight. Remember this. The Captain of our Salvation has already won the battle. Satan can harass you but he cannot destroy you. Lo! His doom is sure; one little word shall fell him. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?