‘He descended into hell’
Timothy Cross continues looking at the Apostles’ Creed
The exact meaning of Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ has been much debated over the centuries. The Reformed consensus is that when Christ died at Calvary, he actually experienced the indescribable torments of hell, without in any way becoming sinful himself. And he did this so that we might be eternally saved from those torments.
In a summary of his Institutes, John Calvin explains: ‘As for the expression “he descended into hell”,this means that he was struck by God and that he endured and felt the horrible rigour of God’s judgement, putting himself between God’s anger and ourselves, and satisfying God’s justice on our behalf.
‘He thus suffered and bore the punishment which our unrighteousness deserved, while there was not the slightest trace of sin in him’ (Truth for all time, pp.41, 42).
‘He descended into hell’ are the most solemn words in the Apostles’ Creed, yet they take us to the heart of the gospel and the true meaning of the cross of Christ – the depths of God’s love for sinners.
They are words full of assurance and comfort to the believer, to the one whose faith is in Jesus Christ. ‘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 4:10).
Hell has never been a popular subject and there are many who deny its reality. Some have purported that Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ is merely a synonym for his burial. But this cannot be the case, since the Apostles’ Creed is characterised by conciseness and succinctness; it contains no superfluous lines and would not mention Christ’s burial twice.
Hell is the place of the eternally damned. It is the ultimate in God’s judgement against sin and entails being eternally banished from the blessedness of God’s presence. Jesus described it as ‘outer darkness’ (Matthew 25:30).
The question is, did Jesus really experience hell at Calvary when he bore our sins and God’s judgement upon them? Did he really ‘descend into hell’?
Yes. He tasted the outer darkness to save us from it, so that we might bask in God’s eternal light. When he died, ‘from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour’ (Matthew 27:45).
Was Jesus really separated from God and banished from the blessedness of this fellowship? Yes, at Calvary, ‘for our sake [God] made him to be sinwho knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Sin is anathema to a holy God. At Calvary, Jesus bore our sins and God’s just judgement upon them. God the Father momentarily turned his face from his beloved Son. ‘About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” That is, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46).
At Calvary, Jesus did indeed ‘descend into hell’. He was divinely punished to procure our divine pardon. He endured divine retribution to gain our divine redemption. He was separated from his Father so that we might be reconciled to God and through faith in Jesus Christ go at last to heaven, ‘saved by his precious blood’.
Here is the true meaning of Calvary. Jesus saves from death and hell. He ‘was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell’. It is truly wonderful that his pains have procured eternal salvation.
That Christ really did experience such spiritual agony is both the plain teaching of Scripture and the believer’s comfort and solace. In its explanation of the Apostles’ Creed, Question 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: ‘Why is there added, “He descended into hell”?’
The catechism’s answer reveals the precious pastoral implications of what we are considering: ‘That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.’
Anne Ross Cousin put it poetically when she wrote:
The Holy One did hide his face,
O Christ ’twas hid from thee,
Dumb darkness wrapped thy soul a space
The darkness due to me;
But now that face of radiant grace