He Went Where?
Most Christians all over the world confess their faith in worship using one of two ancient, historical creeds: The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. When we confess the faith using one of these creeds, we not only confess those things we believe, but we remind ourselves that Christianity is a lot older than we (our faith is grounded in history) and a lot broader than we (these articles of faith are shared by all who have any claim to be Christian throughout two millennia and all over the world). Confessing the faith helps us get past the myopia and arrogance of thinking of ourselves as though we were the first or only Christians in the world, or of treating the Faith as something we can tinker with to ‘make it our own.’ The Faith we confess is a received faith, a faith handed down to us from age to age by the Church.
Elisabeth Elliot who lost two husbands, one to martyrdom and one to cancer, illustrates how the Creed can support us when we are going through the fiery trials and rising floods of life. She wrote after her second husband’s death that one of the things that stabilized and comforted her was reciting the Apostles’ Creed. As she did, she thought to herself, ‘Not one of these articles has changed because of anything that has happened to me.’
There are two articles of the Creed that are most likely to raise questions in the minds of evangelical Protestants. One is that we confess we believe in the ‘holy catholic church.’ The other, perhaps even more troublesome, is the confession about our Lord that ‘he descended into hell.’
Perhaps it will be good for us to reflect on whether we ought to confess this and, if we do, what we mean to confess.
Below are the Apostles’ Creed statement, and the ways three different confessional statements of the Reformed tradition take it. The first is the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. This takes the statement at more-or-less its face value. If you want an example of an evangelical Protestant taking it in this way, take J. I. Packer’s exposition of the Creed. This view depends on understanding 1 Peter 3:18-20 as describing something Christ did, not through Noah’s preaching before the flood, but what Christ did following his death on the cross.
The second is taken from the Heidelberg Catechism from the Dutch Reformed tradition. This reflects Calvin’s explanation of this article of the faith. This represents what probably is the majority view among Reformed people today. I have often thought that his is the easiest view to preach. I also believe that this view does accurately describe the nature of our Lord’s sufferings on the cross. But I do not believe it is necessarily the best grounded in Scripture.
The third is from the Westminster Shorter Catechism from the British-American Presbyterian Tradition. Not to put myself with Packer or Calvin, but I am an example of one who takes this to be the right understanding. First, I think this is what makes best sense of the Scriptural evidence (Psa. 16:9-11 and Acts 2:25-31). Second, I think this is the way we ought to take it because we are a confessional church. That means we are guided by our Confession in our understanding of such things, not that we place the Confession over the Bible or even over the Creed, but that we believe it best reflects the most accurate understanding of Scripture, taking into account all the relevant material, therefore, the best way to take this article of the Creed.
He descended into hell.
Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (Anglican)
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.
Heidelberg Catechism (Continental Reformed)
Question 44. Why is there added, ‘he descended into hell’?
Answer: 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,(a) but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.(b)
(a) Psa. 18:5 The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me.
Psa.18:6 In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears.
Psa.116:3 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.
Matt.26:38 Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.
Heb.5:7 Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;
Isa.53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Matt.27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
(b) Isa.53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
Westminster Larger Catechism (British Presbyterian)
Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. 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.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.
Psalm 16:10. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
Acts 2:24-27, 31. Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption…. He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.
Romans 6:9. Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
Matthew 12:40. For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
What is the significance of confessing that Jesus died, was buried, and remained under the power of death from his death on the cross till his resurrection? First, when we confess these things we confess the Apostolic Gospel, that is, the Gospel preached by the Apostles. Second, we confirm that Jesus Christ truly died. If he did not die, the penalty of sin has not been paid. If he did not really enter fully into the state of death, then there is no such thing as his resurrection. Third, we can find comfort knowing that our Lord has been through all we as mortal human beings face, and emerged from it triumphant.
As one of the prayers we can offer at the time of burial puts it:
Almighty God, who by the death of Your dear Son Jesus Christ has destroyed death, by His rest in the tomb has sanctified the graves of the saints, and by His glorious resurrection has brought life and immortality to light: Receive, we beseech You, our unfeigned thanks for that victory over death and the grave which He has obtained for us and for all who sleep in Him. Keep us in everlasting fellowship with all that wait for You on earth, and with all that are with You in heaven, in union with Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Mississippi.
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