Easter Eve – Christ in Hell?

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a repost from a few years back. Originally an academic paper, hopefully not too dry.  Turns out, Calvin wasn’t right about everything…

Article III
Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

Calvin’s position regarding the Apostles’ Creed’s article “He descended into Hell” can be found both in his catechism and, in far more detail, in his Institutes. He rejects the traditional understanding of a descent during the Triduum and, instead, argues that the descent describes Christ’s death on our behalf on the Cross, in particular the agony of punishment the He bore for us.

I will review the traditional views on Christ’s descent and assess them with reference to the claimed scriptural support, before presenting an alternative position for consideration. I will then return to assess Calvin’s argument before making some brief concluding remarks on the weaknesses in both the Fathers’ and Calvin’s approaches to the doctrine and Creed respectively, finally noting the helpful focus on the Cross which Calvin’s position, despite it’s flaws, commends to us.

The doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hell has a long history in the Church. It is spoken of by the earliest Fathers and soon found a mention in various Creeds. Subsequent writing developed the doctrine by assigning various tasks to Christ during the descent. Calvin’s interpretation of the Creedal article is innovative, seeing it as a description of Christ’s death on the Cross.

Calvin’s view of “He descended into hell”
Calvin’s position regarding the Descent of Christ into Hell can be found both in his catechism (sec. 20, iv) and, in far more detail, in his Institutes (II 16.8-12).

His catechism provides a useful summary of the position,

iv. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried, he descended into hell.
… It is said that he descended into hell. This means that he had been afflicted by God, and felt the dread and severity of divine judgement, in order to intercede with God’s wrath and make satisfaction to his justice in our name, thus paying our debts and lifting our penalties, not for his own iniquity (which never existed) but for ours.

Simply put, for Calvin Christ’s descent into hell was actually experienced on the Cross. It was not an actual descent to the underworld but almost as though hell ascended to Him.

Calvin defends this position in sections 12-16 of chapter xvi, Book II of the Institutes. He considers the doctrine to be of ‘no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption’. The article must be dealt with since

…although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not by any means to be disregarded.


This much is uncontroverted, that it was in accordance with the general sentiment of all believers, since there is none of the Fathers who does not mention Christ’s descent into hell, though they have various modes of explaining it.

Some, according to Calvin, simply read the Descent as Christ’s burial, but this would be an unnecessary repetition and ‘superfluous tautology’ (all above II.xvi.8).

Others interpret it as Christ descending to liberate the souls of the Patriarchs. This Calvin quickly dismisses as ‘nothing but a fable’, demonstrating that the text quoted in support, Zech. 9:11, refers to the return from Exile. Calvin will, however, concede that ‘Christ illumined them by the power of his Spirit’, applying 1Pet. 3:19, although the passage in Peter is ‘not perfectly definite’ (II.xvi.9).

Next Calvin turns to a more detailed presentation of his position. Since, “the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” and, “he bore our infirmities” (Isa. 53:5,4), ‘there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God’. Christ suffered, on our behalf, the agony which we would have suffered in Hell, but He suffered it on the Cross (II.xvi.10).

He then settles his argument primarily upon the combination of 2 texts, Acts 2:24 and Matt. 27:46.

Acts 2:24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

[Peter] does not mention death simply, but says that the Son of God endured the pains produced by the curse and wrath of God, the source of death’. Those “pains produced by … God” forced Christ to exclaim, “My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Christ ‘bore the weight of divine anger’ and ‘experienced all the signs of an angry and avenging God (II.xvi.12).

Christian Tradition concerning the Descent
Calvin’s position is certainly not unique but ‘does represent a deviation from the traditional, literal view held by Aquinas, Luther, and the Council of Trent’ (Hesselink 1997, 218). More than that, ‘we do find, in Calvin’s systematic efforts, a radically new interpretation of the descent without its traditional geographical accoutrement’ (Rakow 1974, 218).

It follows, then, that Calvin’s explanation is not just a positive assertion but a denial of much that has gone before and therefore, in order to better understand his position, we will turn to examine the history of the doctrine.

One of the most comprehensive summaries of the topic is provided by McCulloch’s The Harrowing of Hell. He comprehensively outlines the development of the doctrine in both Creeds (1930, 67-82) and the writings of the Fathers (1930, 83-130). It is not our intention here to duplicate that work in detail but we should note that

Although the confessional use of the Descent doctrine was only sporadic and occasional before the eight century, on the other hand the doctrine itself was mentioned repeatedly by the Fathers and in the religious literature of the early centuries. There was, indeed, no more popular and elaborated part of the Christian faith. That our Lord was apud inferos is among the things which S. Augustine says testatissima veritate de Christo conscripta sunt (1930, 73-74).

That the Easter event included a descent to Hades was understood by writers as early as Polycarp who describes Jesus as the one ‘whom God raised, having loosed the pangs of Hades’ (Philippians 1:2). Like Calvin, Polycarp restates Acts 2:24 in terms of Hades, not just death (McCulloch 1930, 84).

Justin Martyr provides an explanation of this time in Hades as, ‘The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation’ (Dial. LXXII). Irenaeus concurs, ‘It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him’ (Adv. Haer. iv.27.2) (McCulloch 1930, 84-93).

The Descent is also associated by many of the Fathers with Christ’s preaching to the “spirits in prison” in 1Peter 3:19 (e.g. Augustine ad. Evod.).

The earliest Creedal reference appears to be Syriac, probably synonymous with Christ’s death and burial. In the West the descent acquired Creedal status with its incorporation into the final text of the Apostle’s Creed no earlier than A.D. 370 (Pelikan 1971, 150). Rufinus quotes the article in the Aquileaian Creed (A.D. 370) as “descendit in inferna”. The Sacramentarium Gallicanum (A.D. 650) and the ultimate text of the western creed, recorded by Pirminius (A.D. 750) both have “descendit ad inferna” (Schaff 1931, 54). The Creed does not provide an explanation of the Descent.

Reflecting on this variety of understanding, Otto notes that,

While the intention behind the original insertion of the article is dubious at best, and while it is apparent that the meaning originally denoted by the descensus has been altered by its conjunction with the burial, the church has generally continued to hold to the article, this despite the fact that no consensus has been or apparently can be reached on its meaning. To include such a mysterious article in the creed, which is supposed to be a summary of the basis and vital tenets of the faith, seems very unwise (1990, 150).

The understanding of the Descent develops in concert with the Fathers’ understanding of Hades itself. Tertullian, whilst affirming that Christ ‘[descended] into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself’, asked the pressing question, ‘what difference is there between heathens and Christians, if the same prison awaits them all when dead?’ (On the Soul, LV). His answer to Marcion, drawing from Luke 16:19-31, was ‘Scripture itself … expressly distinguishes between Abraham’s bosom, where the poor man dwells, and the infernal place of torment. “Hell” (I take it) means one thing, and “Abraham’s bosom” another’ (Contra. Marc. iv.34). Here, for perhaps the first time, we have expressed a distinction between a general Hades where all the dead go and a more narrowly defined Hades of punishment.

By the time of Aquinas the doctrine has undergone much further development. In the Summa he brings together a number of earlier strands, arguing threefold: first, that ‘through sin man had incurred not only the death of the body, but also descent into hell. Consequently since it was fitting for Christ to die in order to deliver us from death, so it was fitting for Him to descend into hell in order to deliver us also from going down into hell’, second that ‘it was fitting when the devil was overthrown by the Passion that Christ should deliver the captives detained in hell, according to Zech. 9:11 … and …Col. 2:15’ and

Thirdly, that as He showed forth His power on earth by living and dying, so also He might manifest it in hell, by visiting it and enlightening it. Accordingly it is written (Ps. 23:73): “Lift up your gates, O ye princes,” which the gloss thus interprets: “that is—Ye princes of hell, take away your power, whereby hitherto you held men fast in hell”; and so “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” not only “of them that are in heaven,” but likewise “of them that are in hell,” as is said in Phil. 2:10 (Summa Q51,1,contra).

Aquinas’ reliance on the “gloss” underpins a number of his arguments. Here the gloss is at odds with the more natural reading of the Psalm as a Psalm of Ascents and therefore to be interpreted Christologically with respect to Christ’s ascension, not any alleged descent. Aquinas also allows the gloss to determine his reading of Ephesians 4:8, ‘”Now that He ascended, what is it, but because He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” And a gloss adds: “that is—into hell.”’ (Summa Q51,1,contra). As with other Father before him, Aquinas cites, amongst other texts, Acts 2:24 and 1Peter 3:19 (Summa Q51,2,objs.2&3).

The extent of Scripture’s witness
Although there is an extensive witness amongst the Fathers, the question still arises to what extent Scripture actually testifies to the doctrine. As Cunningham puts it,

In adverting to it, it must be remembered that, in so far as the statement that Christ descended into hell is merely to be found in the Creed, we are under no obligation to explain or to believe it. But the important question is, Does Scripture sanction the statement; and if so, in what sense? (1960, 90-91).

Baker outlines what are generally considered to be the five main passages that are used to support the concept of a descent and will we consider each briefly in turn (2002, 15) before turning to an additional text.

Acts 2:27

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.

Given that the Apostle Peter applies Psalm 16 to Jesus it is hard to see how one cannot argue against Jesus being “in Hades”. However, this does not help us distinguish between the more traditional interpretation and that of Calvin who claims this reference to Jesus’ death in support of his own position, as we have noted above.

Romans 10:6-7

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'”(that is, to bring Christ down) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?'”(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

The reliance one may place on this text is somewhat mitigated, first by the fact that Paul is asking a rhetorical question and second by the observation that αβυσσος is very rarely used to indicate what would otherwise be referred to as “sheol” but rather was consistently used to translate the Hebrew תהוס, the deep sea. To understand this to be the place of the dead may, as Moo puts it, ‘may read too much into the appearance of the word’ (1996, 656 f.n.47) although it certainly appears to be an extension of meaning that the Apostle is making.

Ephesians 4:9

In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?

This verse is of some immediate appeal since the term κατεβη εις τα κατωτερα resonates strongly with the Creeds’ καταλθοντα εισ τα κατωτατα. That is, however, where the similarity stops. There is considerable consensus amongst commentators that the descent referred to here is the Incarnation, mirroring the ascent of verse 8 (Lloyd-Jones 1980, 155).

1Pet3:18-20; 4:6

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

This text has spawned a wide variety of interpretations and, with good reason, Luther considers it ‘certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle means’ (1982, 113).
Although this text, above all, has been used to support the doctrine of a descent and proclamation by Christ we should take note that ‘the verbs that describe Christ’s “going” do not have any notion of “descent” attached to them – the same verb is used to describe Christ’s “going” into heaven in verse 22’ (Baker 2002, 15). Dalton, in his exhaustive work Christ’s Proclamation, argues in the same direction. He notes that the devil and his minions were considered to be denizens of the air, not the underworld (see e.g. Eph. 2:2) and that apocryphal writing also considered them to be imprisoned in the heavens, not in Hades (2Enoch 7:1-3; Test. Levi 3:2) (1965, 181-2). This persuasive view maintains the theme of Christ’s triumph and the believer’s confidence that Peter is setting forth. It does, however, remove another pillar holding up the doctrine of Christ’s descent.

4:6, is thus also discounted – it being, at the best, dependent upon 3:19 for an interpretation in favour of a descent.

An additional text – Luke 16:20-31
The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man provides our most profitable vein for exploration of Hades. Conspicuously, Jesus does not introduce this teaching as a parable, unlike all the other parables in Luke. The details come from Jewish tradition (e.g. 4Macc 13:17) (Bock 1996, 1368). It would be hard to imagine that Jesus should use a picture that was simply incorrect, rather His usage and the lack of the customary “He told them a parable” indicates that this is a reliable account from the lips of our Lord as to the basic structure of the after-life. Given that the Rich Man asks that Lazarus should be sent back to his living relatives to warn them (16:27-28) we may also deduce that this is a pre-parousia state and thus, if the Lord had descended in the Triduum, then it would most likely have been into this scenario.

Was there actually a descent?
As we have seen, despite the Fathers’ seeming unanimous assent there is no actual scriptural reference to a descent by Christ. The nearest we may come is to suggest that the promise of Jesus to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), may be said to imply such an action. It is by no means a cast-iron argument but it is certainly not contradictory to scripture to suggest that Jesus, upon dying, in some way “descended” to “Abraham’s Bosom”, otherwise known as “Paradise”, where He sojourned until His resurrection6. Thus Grudem’s claim that,

…it seems best to consider the troublesome phrase “he descended into hell” a late intruder into the Apostles’ Creed that really never belonged there in the first place and that, on historical and Scriptural grounds, deserves to be removed. (1991, 103).

appears somewhat overstated.

Assessing Calvin’s argument
In all respects it is difficult not to conclude that Calvin has erred somewhat in his explanation of the Creedal article. He is certainly not incorrect in his insistence that we understand Christ’s death as a penal sacrifice, where He endured an agony in our place. But it simply does not do justice to the article itself on 2 basic grounds.

First, and most glaringly, Calvin’s explanation breaks the obvious chronological flow of the Creed. As Otto puts it,

As consonant as this interpretation is with Scripture, it is inconsistent with the placement of the descensus in the creed after the burial. For this interpretation to make sense, the descensus should have appeared after “was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” which is not the case (1990, 149).

Second, as we have argued above, it is not doing violence to scripture to allow for a descent of some form, to “Paradise” but not the Hell of punishment. This much can surely be defended from scripture.

We can only guess as to why Calvin felt the need to argue the way that he did. There was, perhaps, a need to demonstrate his catholicity and we may certainly assume that the associations of the doctrine with that of Purgatory may have had an effect on his approach. What cannot be denied, however, is Scaer’s accusation that, ‘The descent-into-hell phrase … was an opportunity to reaffirm his concept of punitive judgment as central for understanding Christ’s death’ (1992, 96). Calvin may often be wrongly accused of overstating penal substitution, but this does not appear to be one of those occasions.

Conclusion – Theological Implications
The most obvious immediate conclusion that we can make is that we must be careful not to read more or less in Scripture than is there. We may have some grounds for criticising many of the Fathers for “going beyond what is written”7 and also may wish to tentatively question how much more Calvin read into the article than was intended by the original authors, whoever they may have been.

But, beyond those basic observations, Calvin’s approach reaffirms a valuable truth. The Cross is the focus of our understanding of the work of Christ. The development of the doctrine of Christ’s descent, with it’s increasing embellishments of Demons, clamour of bursting gates, joyous patriarchs, entourage led by John the Baptist and preaching to the lost had distracted from this central focus. Calvin reminds us which work of Christ is the ground of our salvation; it is His crucifixion – a real and lasting victory (Rakow 1974, 222 & 225).

Any affirmation of Christ’s descent also, ‘whether expressed as doctrine or as legend, in the pulpit, in art, in verse or the drama, shows an instinctive belief in God’s love beyond the grave. This of itself should make us pause before attempting to delete from the Creed the article which tells us that Christ descended into Hell’ (MacCulloch 1930, 326).

This, surely, was the comfort of the thief on the cross. He was not abandoned in any way by Christ. If we belong to Christ then the after-life need not make us afraid. We will go where Christ went and where that thief still is – to Paradise; Abraham’s Bosom – secure in the knowledge that our future resurrection from that place and into a New Heaven and Earth is as certain as that of Him who went before us, whose raising from death in Hades is the firstfruits of our own Resurrection at His coming.

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