Our Lord Díd Descend
Into Hell - Dr. A. H. Bogaards
The author, Dr. Arie (Attie) Hendrik Bogaards is a minister in the Reformed Churches of South Africa (Die Gereformeerde Kerke van Suid-Afrika, also known as the Dopper Churches). His parents were emigrants from the Netherlands in the years following WW II and he was born on June 27, 1954 in Swartruggens, SA. In 1974 he enrolled at the University of Potschefstroom.In 1982 he acquired an M.A. in Semitic Languages. His doctorate in dogmatics was obtained on the strength of a thesis titled: The Christology of Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge (1803-1875).Since 1986 he has served as pastor to the congregations of Danielskuile and Delportshoop.
1. The heartbeat of the
With the confession of our Apostolicum (the Apostles' Creed, that great symbol of our ecumenical faith, SW) that our Lord descended into hell, we are at the heartbeat of the gospel. Confessing it, we express what is the deepest meaning of the suffering of our Lord on our behalf. It is a wonderful, comforting confession, because we learn from it that the Son of God was in hell so that we can receive paradise.
However, in the history of the church, as well as in our time, there has been much criticism of this confession, as well as misunderstanding and error as far as this article of faith is concerned. There are, for example, people who draw the conclusion from it that our Lord was in the place called hell.
My intention with this paper is not to go into every error or point of critique. My purpose is to show that this article is based on the Word. I also want to have the reader understand how rich and comforting it is.
2. Scripture the sole
What people, also today, think about it, is not important. What is decisive is the question whether this confession is in line with Scripture.
We must therefore consult the Word: Did our Lord descend into hell? The answer to this question is 'no' and 'yes'.
3. No, Jesus did not descend into
There is no evidence in Scripture for the view that Jesus was, after his death and while He was in the grave, in hell as a distinct, physical place. The words of our Lord addressed to the murderer: "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Lk.23,43), and his last words on the cross: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Lk.23,46), are decisive. From these words we may conclude that our Lord, when He died, was with his Father in paradise and not in hell.
Advocates of the view that Christ, when He died, descended into hell, give as proof, 1 Peter 3, 18 to 22 and 1 Peter 4, 6. Let us therefore have a closer look at those verses.
In 1 Peter 3,18 to 22 we read that our Lord was "quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water".
Verse 6 of chapter 4 says: "The gospel was preached also to them that are dead".
These texts are indeed very difficult. However, it is a principle of exegesis that the more difficult parts of Scripture must be interpreted and explained in the light of the easier ones. Scripture must be compared with Scripture. Therefore, in the light of Luke 23 verses 43 and 46, these verses from 1 Peter most certainly cannot be interpreted as teaching that our Lord, after he died, went on a triumphal procession into hell (prison). That will be contrary to the verses in Luke 23. The explanatory notes in the margins of the Dutch Statenvertaling give us the correct exegesis: Our Lord Jesus preached through Noah for the people of his time. However, they did not heed that preaching. In spite of God's longsuffering they remained disobedient. As a result of their disobedience they were then, at the time when Peter wrote this letter, in hell or prison.
(The 'Statenvertaling' is a much praised Dutch translation of the Bible, ordered by the Synod of Dordrecht 1618-1619, mostly paid for by the Dutch Government's States General and first published in 1637; it is well known and beloved for its excellent exegetical marginalia, the so-called 'kanttekeningen' or literally 'edge notes'; a page from that 350 year old Bible is shown to the right,SW)
4. Yes, Jesus did descend into hell
Our Lord did not descend into hell as place and yet we confess: He díd descend into hell. How are we to understand that?
I cannot emphasize it too strongly that our Lord did descend and that He did descend into hell. Every word of this article of the Apostolicum is absolutely true.
This I say on the grounds of Scripture (Sola Scriptura).
A text of the utmost importance is Ephesians 4,9:
"Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?"
A better translation of " the lower parts of the earth" would be: "the lower parts, i.e. the earth".
To understand what is meant by it, we must read verse 9 with 10, where it is said of Jesus that He ascended far "above all heavens". Thus we have two absolute, radical opposites: descended into "the lower parts, i.e. the earth" over against ascended far "above all heavens". In the first instance our Lord's deepest suffering and humiliation - the pangs of hell - are expressed and in the second his supreme exaltation. We may also put it like this: Verse 9 has nothing to do with hell as a place (that Christ went to hell as a distinct place after his death) and yet this verse has everything to do with hell, but then in this sense of the word that our Lord suffered hell on earth. From birth until death he experienced the wrath of God, and that is hell. For this reason he can give us the gifts of verse 11.
Thus it is one hundred percent correct to confess that our Lord descended and that he descended into hell.
The best commentary on Ephesians 4 is Paul himself in Philippians 2, 6 to 9:
"The Son of God took upon himself the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him".
Therefore, if you want to see how deep our Lord did humiliate himself, then read Philippians 2: It was into hell.
Some say: Jesus did not go into hell, but hell came to him on the cross. This statement is only partially acceptable to me. Jesus díd descend to earth to suffer the pangs of hell. Therefore we may more correctly say: Hell did not only come to him, but he also went into hell.
Moreover, not only his cross must be included in the words, "He descended into hell", but his whole life on earth, from birth till death (HC, Q/A 44). Tourists to Jerusalem are being told that the Via Dolorosa (road of suffering, the road on which Jesus carried the cross) starts at the court of Pontius Pilate and ends at Golgotha. Scripture however teaches us that the Via Dolorosa started at the crib and ended in the grave. His birth was his first step on the Via Dolorosa. Someone put it like this: Already at the crib Christ started to pay for our redemption. The biggest coins however, he laid down in the pangs of death in Gethsemane and in the dark moment of the cross, when he cried with a loud voice, saying: " My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"(Matt.27,46).
5. Every word (Word) is important
We may not soften the word hell by replacing it with, for example, 'deepest suffering'. The word hell is a significant word. It is a Biblical one. It reminds us that the suffering of our Lord was not an ordinary one, but behind it we must see the angry hand of God. He suffered the eternal wrath of God.
Likewise descend is a word which has its roots in salvation history. That is already clear from Ephesians 4. How very deep did the Son of God descend to save us! It was from the highest heaven into the deepest depth of eternal death! Because he descended from heaven into hell, therefore - and for that very reason - he is the bread of life which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6:33).
Every word of this article has its roots in the Word of God and therefore the Words (capital W) of this article are essential.
6. The deeper meaning of the life and suffering of our Lord
Some who have a problem with this article say: It gives the impression that Christ was actually in hell after his death. They want to understand the preceding articles chronologically and therefore they argue as follows: Everything which is confessed in the previous articles are events which follow one another in time: first our Lord was conceived of the Holy Spirit, then he was born of the Virgin Mary, then he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. This, they say, may give the impression that we must understand our article as follows: then (that is: after he died and was buried) he descended into hell.
However, the fact of the matter is that the words first and then do not appear in our translation and definitely not in the original text.
We must rather follow in the footsteps of John Calvin. According to his view our article is a confession concerning the deepest meaning of the life and suffering of Jesus Christ. First the Apostolicum mentions all the events in the life of Jesus: his birth, cross, death, etc. Then the Apostolicum explains what this means: This (his birth, cross, death, etc.) constitute a descent into hell. This is also the explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 44) and Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583).
7. With the church of all ages we confess our faith
Maybe you are acquainted with the words of this heading. In South Africa ministers in the past (and fortunately some still) introduce the Apostolicum with these words.
These are not at all meaningless words. It is a confession: I believe in the communion of saints. Saying this, we admit: We stand on the same foundation as our spiritual fathers through the ages. But there is even more to these words. With it we confess: The Apostolicum is an inheritance from the past, the prized possession of the communion of saints. We may see the hand of the Holy Spirit in it: It is the Spirit of God who led a brother or brothers of mine hundreds of years ago to this confession and over the ages one brother handed it to another until it was given to me. This also applies to the interpretation of Calvin and Ursinus. Yes, I believe in the Holy Spirit and in the communion of saints which he creates. Therefore I cannot easily alter or delete this article.
Of course we have the responsibility to test our confession in the light of the Word. Men are sinners. However, we must not forget that the Holy Spirit also works through believing men.
For me the Apostolicum will always be a wonder of God. Just look how beautiful and harmoniously whole it is. If one damages a part of a painting, you will ruin the whole. By the insertion of our article we have a confession in which we have the descent and the ascent, hell and heaven. This cannot be the work of man. Only the Spirit can produce such an absolute Scriptural masterpiece.
With the church of all ages I therefore confess: I believe in Jesus Christ...who descended into hell.
8. Paradise opened for me
Yes, Jesus díd descend into hell. But as a result of that descent he could open heaven for the murderer who was in hell (on the cross) and for everyone who deserves hell, but believes in him. He could open paradise with the key - and there is no other key -- of his descent. For that reason the words of our confession will be the greatest comfort.