What does it mean that "Christ Descended into Hell?"3
Every week as we recite the Apostles Creed we confess that Jesus Christ, after he was crucified, died, and buried, "He descended into hell." What biblical passage(s) are the basis for this statement, and what exactly do we mean when we say it?
As far as the biblical basis, 19th century reformed theologian Herman Bavinck gives a helpful overview of the many passages that have been used over the centuries to support Christ's descent to Hell. He lists Hosea 13:14; Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27; Romans 10:7; and 1 Peter 3:18-22, just to name a few. He is surely right to point out, however, that careful interpretation of all of the above passages do not support the idea of a literal descent of Christ into hell after his death. The only N.T. passage that might give some plausibility to such an idea is the 1 Peter 3 passage. There apostle writes that after Christ was put to death in the flesh, he was "made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison because they formerly did not obey..." Some branches of the Christian church believe that this verse teaches that Christ actually went to hell after his death. The Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church, for example, both teach that Christ went to Hell in order to conduct the devout believers of the Old Testament out of limbo and into the glory of heaven. The Lutheran church also holds to a literal descent into hell, but for a different purpose. According to the Lutheran view, Christ went to Hell after his death to proclaim his victory and triumph over the devil and all the powers of darkness. Other ideas that have surfaced historically include the belief that Christ descended into hell to continue to endure the punishment for sin, or that Christ went to hell to give those who died before his coming a second chance to repent and believe.
The protestant reformers and confessions rejected the idea that Christ literally went to hell after his death (regardless of the purpose). 1 Peter 3:18ff might be interpreted that way, but there are other ways this difficult passage can be understood. One common understanding among reformed interpreters of this passage is that it is referring to Christ's preaching of repentance through Noah to the unrighteous humans who lived in his (Noah’s) day, and who have now died and gone to hell. In any case, this is surely a passage in which one must remember and apply the analogy of faith and allow more clear passages to interpret less clear passages of Scripture. When we look at what the Bible does say clearly, the idea that Christ actually went to hell either in body or soul, does not hold up. For one, remember that Jesus pronounced on the cross that “it is finished.” Clearly he is referring to the work of redemption, the cup that the father had given him to drink in order to secure the salvation of sinners. Thus, the idea that Christ had to go to hell to continue to suffer for sins is at odds with Christ's own statement. Second, recall what Jesus told the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise.” This shows that Jesus did not literally go to hell after his death, but was that his spirit would be in heaven even as his physical body was in the tomb.
So if Christ did not literally descend into hell, what do we mean when we confess “He descended into Hell?” Both the Heidelberg Catechism and our own Westminster Larger Catechism give us complementary perspectives on how we ought to understand this phrase. The Heidelberg gives this answer in response to the question "why is there added, 'he descended into hell?'" (Q&A 44)
That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
In other words, Christ descended into hell in the sense that he suffered (in all of his life, but culminating on the cross) the full reality of hell in the place of sinners. This reality is reflected in Jesus' cry of abandonment "My God My God why have you forsaken me?" The essence of hell is being fully and finally separated from God and forsaken by him, and Jesus endured this in our place. The HC reminds us here that Jesus physical suffering was only part of the horror of the cross, his anguish of soul and spirit were also hellish.
The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC 50) gives a complementary perspective. In answer to the question about the nature of Christ's humiliation after his death, the divines answer
Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
In other words, the Divines understood Christ's descent into hell as a reference to his remaining in the grave and under the power of death. It is the final and lowest point of Christ's humiliation, that he, the very author of life, would give himself to the power of death for a time. And because he gave himself to the power of death, he can and will redeem his people from that same power!
As I said, these reformed expressions do not contradict each other, but give different and complementary perspectives on Christ's descent into hell. Personally, I have always resonated more with the HC emphasis on the hellish agonies the Jesus suffered on the cross. He really did endure the full weight and judgement of sin on the cross that it would have taken me eternity to endure. He experienced hell, so that all who trust in him will never have to. Praise God!