In the Apostle's Creed we confess belief that Christ, after his death and burial, descended into hell. This teaching generally receives very little emphasis in normal church life. Although not as important as other doctrines, such as law and gospel and atonement, the descent into hell as a Scriptural doctrine does deserve our attention, especially in light of the false teachings which have arisen in connection with it. The purpose of this paper is to examine what the Bible has to say about Christ's descent into hell, and then contrast the Scriptural teaching with the incorrect teachings which have arisen.
The doctrine of the descent into hell is based primarily on two passages, I Peter 3:18-20 and Colossians 2:15. This paper will not present a thorough exegesis of the verses, but will attempt to cover the main points of the passages.
Without a doubt the sedes doctrinae of Christ's descent into hell is I Peter 3:18-20. Correct understanding of this passage is essential in avoiding the major errors connected with this doctrine.
First, an examination of the surrounding context is appropriate. The preceding section (I Pe 3:8-17) speaks about the Christian's life of sanctification, specifically about how to act when one is wronged. Rather than seeking vengeance, the Christian remains humble and gentle. "It is better, if God wants it that way, to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong" (I Pe 3:17 NET). The next verses, the verses in question, provide the motivation for such behavior: Christ, in whom we have our hope, also behaved in such a way. "For Christ died once for our sins, the Righteous One for the unrighteous, to bring us to God" (I Pe 3:18a NET). Christ, who is righteous, undeservingly suffered and died to bring the unrighteous to God.
"He was put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit, in which He also went and preached to the spirits kept in prison, who disobeyed long ago in the days of Noah when God waited patiently while the ark was being built" (I Pe 3:18b-20 NET). This is the heart of the matter. After Christ's death he was "made alive" and then descended into hell, or "prison" (phylake), where the spirits who disobeyed in Noah's day were kept.
The identification of hell with "prison" here is a correct one, for such is the place where disobedient spirits go after death. Although Braaten wishes to equate phylake with Hades and make it merely a temporary holding place for all the dead until judgment, he does so only on the basis of historical-critical theory and with a specific purpose in mind: universalism (548). This interpretation of the passage is unwarranted, considering what Jesus himself told us about Hades in Luke 16:19-31. Nor can we say that this passage describes Jesus visiting a physical, earthly prison after his resurrection. The prison Peter describes holds "spirits" (pneumasin), which an earthly prison would have a hard time doing. Against the idea that "spirits" may here refer simply to people, Peter tells us that these spirits disobeyed at Noah's time. Since the actual human beings present on earth at Noah's time were long since dead at Christ's resurrection, it is not even a possibility that Christ visited them in an earthly prison. The prison Christ visited after his death was hell.
So much for the facts of the descent into hell. The proper understanding of this passage hinges on several questions. In what way was Christ made alive again? For what purpose did he preach to the spirits in prison, and what was the content of his preaching? What was the purpose of the descent? Was the descent into hell a function of Christ's exinanition or his exaltation?
Much has been written on the subject of Christ's state at the time of his descent into hell. The matter hinges upon the phrase:thanatotheis men sarki,
The men...de shows us that the two clauses contrast each other. This assertion is strengthened by the antonymous aorist passive participles, "put to death...made alive". The real heart of the matter hinges on the understanding of the two datives, sarki and pneumati. Since the other elements of these clauses parallel each other, it seems likely that these two would follow. However, NIV gives "He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit." This destroys the parallelism and also introduces the idea of resurrection by the Holy Spirit, which is not found elsewhere in Scripture. The NET renders this "He was put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit," which more accurately renders the parallel datives.
What does this mean though? The NET footnotes seem to follow Becker's conclusion in "The Christological Flesh-Spirit Antithesis." After examining other passages which place the concepts of flesh and spirit in contrast, Becker comes to the conclusion that "...Sarki is thus related to what we call the state of humiliation and pneumati to the state of exaltation and in more dogmatic terms we might translate:Christ was put to death in the state of humiliation
Thus, we need not try to use deduction or human reason to try to figure out Christ's state when he descended into hell. Scripture itself tells us.
We must also point out that the entire person of Christ descended into hell--body as well as spirit. Those who would separate Christ's divine and human natures, e.g. the Calvinists, will use sarki and pneumati to claim that only Christ's divine nature descended. However, since Scripture doesn't allow for separation of Christ's natures, this claim doesn't work.
Therefore, Scripture itself also answers the question of whether the descent into hell was part of Christ's exinanition or his exaltation. Clearly the descent was a function of his exaltation. This has long been the Lutheran position, as we see from Gerhard, for example:
Ad statum exaltationis pertinent descensus ad inferos, resurrectio ex mortuis, adscensio ad coelos et sessio ad Dei dextram (600).
The error of making the descent into hell a part of Christ's exinanition will be handled later.
Why did Christ descend into hell? The common translation is that he "preached" to those in hell. This translation may give the wrong impression, though, that Jesus was there to "preach the good news." The verb in this passage is not from euangelizo, but rather from kerysso. Jesus descended to hell as a herald who proclaimed the news of his victory over death. Though this is certainly good news to us, it surely wasn't good news to those in hell. The verse Colossians 2:15 is commonly quoted in reference to this, to expand on Christ's purpose in descending into hell: "He stripped rulers and powers of their armor and made a public show of them as He celebrated His victory in Christ" (Col 2:15 NET). Schaller states,
As to the manner of this preaching we know nothing. It certainly was of a character adapted to the state of existence in which the hearers were; hence it seems reasonable to assume that Christ did not deliver himself of a discourse in earthly style.... the statement in Colossians 2:15 obviously refers to the same event as I Peter 3:18f, and suggests that the 'preaching' may have been done through significant action rather than by way of verbal proclamation (103).
As the first step in his exaltation, Christ descended into hell to proclaim his victory. However, even though Scripture's teachings on the subject are clear, certain errors persist even to the present day. Three such errors stand out:
1. Christ descended into hell to preach salvation.
2. Christ descended into hell to continue his suffering.
3. Christ's descent was only figurative and not real
The first notion, that Christ descended into hell to preach salvation, is alive and well even today. Braaten in Christian Dogmatics says that
...insofar as we confess Christ's descent to hades as the realm of the dead, we are claiming that his work of salvation is universal and reaches beyond the limits of those who preach and hear the gospel in this life. Nations and generations of people who lived before the coming of Christ and who have never been confronted with the preaching of salvation in his name are not eternally lost (I, 549).
While we as Christians surely do not want any to be lost, we still realize that such an idea is insupportable by Scripture. Its main support seems to be wishful thinking. The idea itself isn't new. It is found as early as Marcion and Origen (Pieper 316) and later in Dante's Inferno. Those who wish to find Scriptural support try to use I Peter 4:6, "Yes, it was for this reason that the dead also once heard the Gospel, so that they might be judged like human beings in the flesh, --but then live like God in the spirit" (NET). However, this verse is not saying that Jesus preached the gospel to those already dead. Rather, it shows God's purpose for having the gospel preached to those who are still alive.
This idea also contradicts clear statements of Scripture, such as Hebrews 9:27: "And just as people are appointed to die once and after that comes judgment..." (NET). Those spirits already in hell had long since died and been judged. Christ's descent into hell wasn't a second chance for them to do things differently and listen to God. "Nor is there the least warrant in the Scriptures to assume that men will be given, or ever were given, an opportunity to hear the gospel and to be saved by accepting it, after death. Our Lord stamps all such expectations as ungodly (Lk 16:26,31)" (Schaller 105).
The idea that Christ descended into hell to continue his suffering surely results from a confusion between his states of exinanition and exaltation. This idea also, though an old one, is still present today. Braaten picks up this error. "We are including it under the state of humiliation, because the descent into hell is a symbol which conveys the truth that Jesus' victory over the enemies of man (sin, death, and the devil) was attained by first suffering the negation they introduced into the world" (I, 548). While it may be easy to think that since Christ went to hell, the place of suffering, the reason he went must have been to suffer. However, this is clearly not the case. First, as shown earlier, the Greek itself shows that the descent was part of Christ's exaltation, not his exinanition. Second, Scripture clearly states that the purpose of Christ's descent was to preach to the spirits. Scripture never suggests that Christ's purpose was to suffer. Third, Christ himself clearly showed that the purpose of the descent was not to suffer. Christ himself said after suffering on the cross, "It is finished" (Jn 19:30). His suffering was over. He didn't descend to hell to continue his suffering, but rather to proclaim his victory.
The third error, that Christ's descent into hell was only figurative, is primarily a Reformed teaching. "The Reformed identify Christ's descent into hell with Christ's entire state of humiliation, or with Christ's suffering, especially with His magna passio in Gethsemane and on Calvary, or also with Christ's death and burial" (Pieper II,317). This error seems to arise both from the Reformed error concerning Christ's two natures and from ignorance of what Scripture says about the descent into hell. It seems to miss completely what Scripture actually says on the matter and substitutes instead the ideas of human reason.
Pieper also suggests the error of taking the I Peter 3 passage as referring to the preaching of Noah (II,318). However, this idea doesn't seem to be very widespread.
Christ's descent into hell teaches us many things. It teaches us about the totality of Christ's victory over sin, death, and the devil. It teaches us about his power in his state of exaltation. It also teaches us how, by letting Scripture speak for itself, we can avoid the errors of saying things Scripture doesn't say and imposing human reason on the clear message of Scripture. Simply by letting Scripture mean what it says, we avoid the common errors of human reason. The doctrine of Christ's descent into hell provides us with a textbook example of this principle.
Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek- English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Becker, Siegbert. "The Christological Flesh-Spirit Antithesis". In Our Great Heritage, vol.2, Lyle W. Lange, General Editor. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Northwestern Publishing House.
Braaten, Carl E. "The Person of Jesus Christ". In Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson, Eds. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Gerhard, Ioannis. Loci Theologici. Berlin: Schlawitz, 1863.
Pieper, Francis, D.D. Christian Dogmatics, vol.II. St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1951.
Reicke, Bo. The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism. Kobenhavn: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1946.
Schaller, John. Biblical Christology: A Study in Lutheran Dogmatics. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Northwestern Publishing House, 1981.
Struck, Gerhard. "Christ's Descent Into Hell". In Our Great Heritage, vol.2, Lyle W. Lange, General Editor. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House.