Christ’s descent into hell is one of the strangest things Christians confess. Two out of the three ecumenical creeds confessed by Anglicans contain it (Apostles’ Creed and Athanasian Creed).
From Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin, the vast majority of theologians have concluded that the descent into hell is implicitly taught in Scripture. They have argued that confessing Jesus Christ as Lord means also confessing that he has descended into hell for our sake.
And yet, to many, Christ’s descent into hell sounds more like a scene from Lord of the Rings (think Gandalf vs the Balrog) than an indispensable tenet of Christian faith. Nevertheless, the descent into hell is part of our story because it tells us something very important about Jesus.
During Passiontide and Holy Week, this is a time for us all to begin remembering our baptism into Christ and his Church. The drama of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is upon us. We are being invited into his story.
As we journey with Jesus into his incarnate life before the Father, I want to consider 3 reasons why Christ’s descent into hell should be treasured as incredibly good news for us this season.
Christ’s descent into hell is good news because…
1. It tells us that God has not forgotten us.
Traditionally, the descent into hell is thought to take place on Holy Saturday. This is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. On Friday, Jesus dies. On Sunday, Jesus rises. On Saturday, his body is in the tomb, while his soul is down in hell.
What is he doing in hell?
Early church fathers (such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus) tell us that on Holy Saturday Jesus went down into the underworld to preach his victory over death and Hades and to release the righteous dead of the Old Testament. The descent into hell is therefore a victory march where Christ frees Adam, Abraham, and other patriarchs who have been waiting for the Messiah to free them from the bonds of death.
This is called “the harrowing of hell.” Christ raids and plunders hell, taking back the saints hell had tried to snatch away.
This story may sound fantastical to us “enlightened” modern people. My coffee is spilling, my kids are fighting, and I’m late for work. Why should I talk about Jesus “harrowing” a mythical underworld?
However, I do not think this story of Holy Saturday is totally irrelevant for us today. Even the Reformer John Calvin stated that Christ’s preaching to the spirits “should not despised” because it expresses “the greatest mysteries of the greatest things.” That is quite a statement.
The story of Jesus preaching and harrowing Limbo (the holding place in hell of God’s saints) was not originally about a fanciful journey to the underworld. For the early church, this story told a profound truth: God has not forgotten the dead.
The way that ancient minds expressed God’s intent to save his own from death was to tell a dramatic story of Jesus going down in might to the realm of bondage, raising a victory cry of his triumph (the “preaching to the spirits in prison,” 1 Pet. 3:19), and then leading the oppressed in a proud march out of hell before their tyrants.
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God…He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison…” (1 Peter 3:18-19).
In some Limbo stories, Jesus is pictured beating down the gates of hell with a processional cross (like the ones in Anglican church services). In other Limbo stories, Jesus is pictured as a poison that makes hell sick and throw up. It is as if his cry from the cross “It is finished!” echoed down into the furthest recesses of hell, putting demons to flight, releasing God’s children from bondage and fulfilling their messianic hope.
For the early church, the harrowing of hell was all about how God was faithful to save those who died before Christ’s coming. It wasn’t about a second offer of salvation given to the damned. It was about God’s undying affection to rescue his fallen people. Jesus did not just die for God’s people on earth after his coming. Jesus also died for God’s people in hell before his coming. The atonement of the cross is big enough for everyone in God’s story.
Theologically, the main point of these dramatic tales is that God stops at nothing, not even the oppression of death, to bring his people back to himself. Christ’s harrowing of Limbo tells us that God has not forgotten the dead. He remembers his own who have fallen and is faithful to carry them home.
2. It underscores the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Many Anglicans (and Christians) prefer saying “he descended to the dead” instead of “he descended into hell.” It feels squeamish to associate Jesus with hell. If he is the Son of God, it seems disrespectful or offensive to say Christ went to hell.
Those who prefer “dead” to “hell” for Christ’s descent will argue that the original word drawn from the Bible (hades, among others) and used in the Creeds (inferos) does not mean the lake of fire we envision today. These words can simply mean “grave.” They do not mean that Jesus went to a fiery house of torture or even a gloomy underworld. They just mean that Jesus was buried in a tomb.
Unfortunately, translating inferos as “grave” doesn’t hold up when one looks at the Bible or Church tradition.
First, in the Bible, death is always more than a brute biological fact. To die is never just to expire or for one’s body to turn cold. In the Bible, to die is to be abandoned by God, to lose God’s presence. Death is not just a physical passing: it is the spiritual wages of sin.
For this reason “descending into hell” means something more than merely dying and being buried. If descent into hell was equivalent with physical burial then there would be no reason for creeds to include it. Why would a creed that is extremely economic with its language uselessly repeat something that had already been said clearly the first time? Why repeat “he was dead and buried” with a strange follow up statement that doesn’t add anything new? That would be redundant and ambiguous. None of the other clauses in any of the creeds do this.
Second, early creeds say, “he rose from the dead.” Scholars today tell us that “the dead” is shorthand for “the place of dead.” In the ancient mind, that place is the underworld. That means Christians not only confessed Christ’s descent to the place of the dead. They confessed his resurrection from the place of dead. Jesus descended into hell and arose from out of hell.
In the ancient world, to die meant that one’s soul went down to the underworld. But the point isn’t the underworld itself. The point is that there is no coming back from the underworld. To die and descend to inferos is to go into a blackhole of shadowy wandering from which there is no hope of return.
With that in mind, hear the apostolic witness: “On the third day, he rose again from the dead.”
Jesus is risen from the black hole of no return! Jesus is the only human to have gone into hell and have emerged from it in one piece! This is unprecedented. This is resurrection!
“But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held by its power…‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption’…This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (Acts 2:24-32).
We can see the importance of “hell” for distinguishing between resurrection and resuscitation. By itself, there is nothing particularly miraculous about coming back from physical death. People do this all the time. There are people declared dead who somehow come back to consciousness in the ER.
But this is not what we are saying when we celebrate the resurrection. We are not saying Jesus merely resuscitated from physical death. We are not saying Jesus’ body was animated from the graveyard.
We are saying that Jesus was resurrected from both physical and spiritual death. We are saying that Jesus went to hell, the place of no return, and entered a whole new life from out of hell itself.
3. It reminds us that no darkness has escaped being touched by Christ’s healing light.
The earliest creedal confessions of Christ’s descent into hell, at their core, expressed commitment to a simple truth: Jesus Christ, when he died for us and our salvation, was truly dead. For early Christians, to say Christ descended into hell was their way of emphasizing the reality of his death. He not only appeared dead: he suffered the same fate of all humans who die east of Eden.
He died and descended into hell.
We can safely assume “hell” means more than “grave.” In the ancient world, people thought of hell (inferos) in two ways.
First, it was an underworld that souls go to when they die. In the New Testament this is called hades, tartarus, or the abyss. In the Old Testament it is called sheol. This underworld is not a lake of fire or a punishment. It is more like a gloomy, shadowy holding cell. Both good and bad people wander in this bleak wasteland when they die.
The second way ancient people thought of hell was as a future punishment. In the New Testament this is called gehenna. It was the burning trash heap outside of Jerusalem and a picture of the judgment that awaited the wicked in the future. It was a sign of God’s justice.
Which one of these did Christ descend to?
Both. By the close of the second century, these two views became glued together into one vision of the afterlife. People started thinking about hell not as a shady underworld or as a future punishment of fire, but as a realm of terror that immediately awaits those who die. This is sort of how most people today think of hell. It is the place of punishment sinners descend to when they die.
It is remarkable that Christians did not shy from confessing Christ’s descent into hell in the following centuries. The opposite happened. Belief in the descent into hell continued to grow and became codified in official creeds.
Christians knew what they were saying when they confessed “he descended into hell.” They knew that their culture would understand “hell” as a terrifying place of damnation one enters upon death. And the Church thought it important to say that Jesus went there in his death.
What does this mean for us?
It means that we make a radical claim when we recite the descent into hell. We are saying that when Jesus died, he was truly dead. His fate was no different than any other human east of Eden. He went the deathly, infernal path of all humans. As bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, Christ descended into every dark, terrifying corner of humanity’s plight.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in ever respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
The descent into hell tells us that there is no darkness we have endured, not even fearing God’s wrath, that Jesus has not experienced. Any terror we have felt, he has felt too. And he trusted in God in the midst of terror. His faith is strong enough to support us when we fail.
The descent into hell is good news.
Christ’s descent into hell is at first a strange thing to recite. But Christians believe it. We believe it because we believe Jesus.
His descent into hell expresses something unique about his undying affection and love for his people. It tells us that God does not forget those who die. It tells us that Jesus really died and came back to new life from a place that no one else has ever come back from. It tells us that Jesus has cast his healing light into every dark corner of our death.
Ultimately, the descent into hell tells us that God would rather unite himself to our flesh and suffer our fate than remain unaffected and idle in heaven. If it means being with us, he would rather endure hell and win for us the victory than leave us to perish without him. Christ’s descent into hell tells us that God has determined that, without us, heaven may as well be hell for him.
But he hasn’t left us alone. He has descended.
Preston is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. He is researching Christ’s descent into hell in the theology of John Calvin. He is discerning a call to ordination in the ACNA. He is also the director of the 2019 Theology and Trauma Conference. Preston and his wife Chesney currently live in Scotland and are practicing Anglicans.