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 clau