[Papercut Press] 2000-07-24 - He Descended into Hell

Summer Question Series, Part 3

1 Peter 3:18,19 "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison."

"My question is did Jesus descend into Heaven or Hell when He was crucified? I have many Lutheran family and friends and their saying is: He descended into hell. In one of the scriptures: Jesus said to the criminal on the cross next to His that today he (the criminal) would be with Him in Heaven."

I am going to use this Monday to tackle this question which is more of a doctrinal than practical level. Towards the end we will see if we can get practical, but this is a question I have struggled with myself for many years. I was a member for five years at the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, where the late Dr. James Boice was the Senior Minister. Every week we said the Apostles Creed in Church, word for word, 700 people, from memory, and the Creed contains the phrase, "He descended into hell." My mouth for five years clamped shut at the phrase, because I thought, "Christ has no place in hell." When He turns to the thief on the cross and says, "Today you will be with me in paradise," I figure, paradise is not hell.

However, my view, which I still hold today, is out of accord with much of the Christian tradition. I am not afraid to state what I believe, that Christ's holiness and purity atoned for sin, and with His sacrifice and death there was no need for Him to descend into hell. But in this view I am out of sync with much of the Christian tradition, and especially my own tradition as a Presbyterian.

John Pearson, in his 1669 work on the Apostles Creed says that this phrase, "hath not been so anciently in the Creed." It was added later, but still, it has been in the Creed since 400 AD. In the Synod of 1562, in the reign of Queen Elisabeth it is stated, "As Christ died for us and was buried, so also it is to be believed that he went down into hell."

And thus we have the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18,19 as quoted above. The "Spirits now in prison," are those spirits now detained in hell. I can go along with this interpretation under one condition, and then I still have a bunch of issues. If those spirits are the Jews who were promised salvation through a savior and Christ goes to them and says, "Here I am. Salvation has been accomplished." Yes, that does not rock my theological world, but it rocks much of the theological structure of many Christian traditions, especially dispensationalism, and much of the theological framework of most, maybe all Baptists. Sadly, to explain why in any detail would be beyond the scope of this short devotional.

However, it seems to me that there would be no need for Christ to go to the departed spirits in hell. And it seems that there must be another interpretation for this verse. In fact, it seems there is some confusion regarding the interpretation of this verse. The Westminster Divines in their annotations on the Bible (1645) say of the phrase Spirits in, "That is, now, when saint Peter wrote this epistle, though not so when they were preached upon." And I have no idea what that means. It seems like they are avoiding the question and speaking abstractly.

John Diodati, theological successor to Calvin in Geneva says on this verse, that this is a figurative kind of speech. God's proper abode is in heaven and His coming to preach to the spirits in prison is symbolic of Him coming from heaven to preach, preaching as Noah did, to souls who would not receive His message. As He says, "to the men of that age whose soules are now in the infernal prisons."

I could really go on and on here. My point is that the Christian tradition is not completely unified on this issue, but most, I feel, would support the use of the phrase, "He descended into hell." Really, this does not have to be such a doctrinal issue. It has ramifications that are very practical. We should certainly study the Word of God and figure out what we believe on this issue, but even more than that we should learn two lessons from this issue.

  1. There are different interpretations of Scripture and doctrine. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to allow people to have and develop their own theological understanding. The issue is Christ, not side issues. Do you trust in Christ and His atonement for all your hope and peace? If yes, then there are no stumbling blocks to fellowship.

  2. Scripture is not always easy to understand. This should motivate us to study all the more. Many of us need to make a resolution to spend as much time reading Scripture as we do watching TV. It is no wonder that so many Christians know so little of the Bible, when they spend no time in it. The fact that Scripture is a book that we need to master, and it is difficult to master, means we ought to seek to spend all the more time in Scripture -- all the time praying for wisdom from the Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria,