Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism
CHRIST’S DESCENT INTO HELL
Why is there added, “he descended into hell?”
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, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
There are two things which it is proper for us to consider in relation to this Article of the Creed. The first is: What is its meaning or sense? And the second, What is its use?
I. WHAT IS THE TRUE SENSE OF THIS ARTICLE OF THE CREED; OR, WHAT DOES THE DESCENT OF CHRIST INTO HELL SIGNIFY?
The term hell is used in the Scriptures in three different senses. 1. It is used for the grave. “Then ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” (Gen. 42:38. Ps. 16:10.) 2. It is employed to represent the place of the damned, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. “In hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off.” (Luke 16:23.) 3. It is employed to signify the most extreme distress and anguish. “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me.” “The Lord bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up,” that is, he brings us into the most extreme pains, from which he afterwards again delivers us. (Ps. 116:3. 1 Sam. 2:6.) [cf. The Meaning of Sheol, Hades, and Hell by WGT Shedd]
In this Article the term hell is to be understood according to the third signification. That it cannot be taken in the sense of the grave is evident; 1. Because it is already declared in the Creed, he was buried. If any one affirms that this last article is explanatory of the one that precedes, he will affirm nothing thereby; because, whenever two declarations, expressing the same thing, are joined together, in order that the one may explain the other, it is proper that the last be clearer and more easily understood than the former. But here it is just the reverse; for to descend into hell is much more obscure than to be buried. 2. It is not probable, in such a brief and concise Confession as the Creed, that the same article would be expressed twice, or that the same thing would be reiterated in other words. Again, when it is said that Christ descended into hell, it cannot mean the place of the damned, which is the second signification of the term as above considered; as is proven from this division: The Divinity did not descend, because this is, and was everywhere: neither did his body, because it rested in the grave three days, according to the type of Jonah; nor did it arise from any other place than the grave.
Neither did the soul of Christ descend:
1. Because the Scriptures in no place affirm this.
2. Because Christ said in relation to this when dying upon the cross, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit;” and to the malefactor, he said, “To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:46, 43.) The soul of Christ, after his death, was, therefore, in the hands of his Father in Paradise, and not in hell. Neither has the sophism any force, which affirms that he was also in the hands of his Father in hell, according to\the declaration of the Psalmist, “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there;” (Ps. 139:8.) that is, he was there also the object of the divine regard, and was defended that he should not perish: for it is first said, “Into thy hands,” &c., that it might next be declared, “To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” But the felicity, and deliverance here spoken of is not found in hell. The meaning is, both of us, who now suffer will this day be in Paradise, in the place of eternal salvation and blessedness, free from all these tortures. But Paradise is neither hell, nor is it in hell, which is the place of torment. Hence it is evident that Christ spoke this to the malefactor, not of his Divinity, but of his soul, which suffered with his body; for his Divinity was now with the thief; neither did he suffer, nor was he delivered according to his Divinity, but according to his soul.
3. If Christ descended into hell, (as to his soul) he descended either that he might there suffer something, or that he might deliver the fathers from that place, as the Papists affirm. But he did not descend for the purpose of suffering any thing, because when hanging upon the cross he said. “It is finished.” (John 19:30.) Neither did he descend to liberate the fathers: 1. Because he did this by suffering for them on earth. 2. He accomplished the same by the power, and efficacy of his Godhead from the very beginning of the world, and not by any local descent of his body, or soul into hell. 3. The fathers were not in hell; therefore they could not be liberated from that place. The souls of the just are in the hands of God, neither do they suffer any pain. “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed; so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us that would come from thence.” (Luke 16:26.) And Lazarus having died was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom, and not into Limbus Patrum.
There are some who believe that the soul of Christ descended into hell after his death, not to suffer, nor to liberate the fathers, but that he might there make an open display of his victory, and strike terror into the minds of the devils. But the Scriptures no where affirm that Christ descended into hell for such a purpose as this.
Those who hold this view of the subject, and who object to what we have here said in regard to the descent of Christ into hell, bring forward the passage in 1 Peter 3:19, as though it were in opposition to the view which we have presented; “By which also he went, and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient,” &c. But the meaning of this passage is different from what these persons suppose: for the Apostle says, Christ went, that is, he was sent of the Father to the Church from the very beginning; by his Spirit, that is by his Divinity; to the spirits which are now in prison, that is in hell; he preached in time past, when he hitherto existed, and they were disobedient, viz, before the flood: for then, when they were disobedient, he preached to them being in this condition. But it was in the time of Noah that they were disobedient. Therefore, it was then that Christ preached by the fathers, inviting the disobedient to repentance. And still further, although Peter speaks of the descent of Christ into hell, yet this is not the meaning of those whom we here oppose, but of the Papists who insist that Christ preached to the fathers in hell, and delivered them.
They also object by bringing forward another passage from the same Apostle, who, in another place, says that “the gospel was preached also to them that are dead.” (1 Peter 4:6) But to understand this passage as they do, is to lose sight of the figure of speech that is employed; for the gospel was preached to the dead, that is, to those who are now dead, or who were dead when Peter wrote this passage, but who were living at the time when it was preached to them.
Another passage found in the epistle of Paul to the Ephesians (4:9), is also wrested from its proper signification by those who hold the above view; where it is said, “that Christ descended into the lower parts of the earth,” which they understand to mean hell. But this is also to disregard the figure of speech that is here used; for the sense of the phrase is, he descended into the lower parts of the earth, that is, into the earth, which is the lowest part of the world; because there is here not an opposition of one part of the earth to another, but of the earth to heaven, by which the humiliation of Christ is signified. This is apparent from the object, and scope of the Apostle, because he here makes a contrast between the highest glory, and the deepest humiliation of Christ. So Christ ascended into the highest parts of heaven, that is, in heaven, which is the highest part of the world.
These passages, therefore, establish nothing in relation to the descent of the soul of Christ into hell, and if they did afford the strongest proof of it, yet still, as we have already said, the testimony which they furnish would not be in favor of those to whom we here refer, but in favor of the Papists who teach that Christ preached in hell, and liberated the fathers. And if the proofs gathered from these passages cannot remove the difficulties which encumber the views of the Papists in relation to this subject, much less can they be of any assistance to these persons; for it is certain that it cannot be proven from them, that Christ descended into hell for the purpose of striking terror into death and the devil. Yet this view, or opinion, of Christ’s descent into hell, has nothing of impiety in it, and has been approved of and held by many of the fathers. Hence it is not proper that we should contend strenuously with any one in regard to it. Yet it is certain, notwithstanding, that it cannot be gathered from the Scriptures, nor established conclusively by solid arguments; whilst reasons to the contrary are at hand. For after his death, when he had said it is finished, the soul of Christ rested in the hands of his Father, to whom he had commended it. And if he descended into hell for the purpose of triumphing over his enemies, this article should be the commencement of his glorification. But it is not likely that the glorification of Christ would take its beginning in hell; for all the preceding articles of the Creed speak of the degrees of the humiliation of Christ, of which the lowest and most extreme is his descent into hell, which is also apparent from the antithesis. Hence we are opposed to this view of the subject. Yet, in the mean time, we confess that Christ struck a great terror and dread in the devils. But this he did by his death, by which he vanquished the devil, sin, and death, and without doubt the devil saw that he was entirely disarmed, and conquered by the death of Christ.
What, therefore, does this descent of Christ into hell signify? 1. It signifies those extreme torments, pains, and anguish, which Christ suffered in his soul, such as the damned experience, partly in this, and partly in the life to come. 2. It embraces also the greatest and most extreme ignominy, which Christ suffered during the whole period of his passion. That these things are signified, and comprehended in the descent of Christ into hell, the testimonies of Scripture which we have already cited in this discussion sufficiently teach and affirm. “The pains of hell gat hold upon me.” “The Lord bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up.” (Ps. 116:3. 1 Sam. 2:6.)
That Christ ought to have suffered, and that he did endure these things is also proven by this same testimony of David: “The pains of hell gat hold upon me,” which is spoken of Christ in the person of David. There are also other portions of Scripture which bear similar testimony, as “It pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief.” “My soul is sorrowful even to death.” (Is. 53:10. Matt. 26:28.) The sorrows and pains which he endured in the garden, when he sweat drops of blood, also demonstrate the same thing: because “the Lord laid upon him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53:6.) And still more he cried out upon the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” (Matt. 27:46.) The same thing is proven by these arguments:
1. Christ was to redeem not only our bodies, but also our souls. Therefore it behooved him to suffer not only in body, but also in soul.
2. It was necessary for Christ to deliver us from the anguish and pains of hell. Therefore it became him to experience these. And this he did either before or after his death. That it was not after his death, the Papists themselves confess. Therefore it was before his death. Neither was it in his body that he endured these things; for the sufferings of his body were only external. Therefore he suffered them in his soul.
3. It is proper that the severe torments and anguish of soul, (which were the heaviest part of his sufferings) should not be unnoticed in the Creed. But they would not be mentioned if this article of the descent of Christ into hell did not refer to them; for the preceding articles speak only of the external sufferings of the body, which Christ suffered from without. There is, therefore, no doubt but that the sufferings of his soul are more particularly signified by this article.
This is the true descent of Christ into hell. Therefore we are to hold and defend in opposition to the Papists, that which is certain, viz, that Christ descended into hell in the manner, and sense in which we have here explained. Should any one, however, be able to defend, and establish the fact that he descended in a different sense, it is well. As for me, I cannot.
Obj. 1. The articles of the Creed ought to be understood in their proper and natural sense, and without admitting any figure. Ans. This is true if the articles, when taken in their proper signification, do not conflict with other portions of Scripture. But this article of Christ’s descent into hell when thus interpreted, is, in many ways, opposed to the declaration of Jesus upon the cross, it is finished; for if he finished, and consummated every part of our redemption upon the cross, then there was no cause left why he should descend into hell, the place of the damned.
Obj. 2. The torments and horrors of soul which Christ experienced preceded his burial. But his descent into hell follows it. Therefore it cannot refer to, and designate the anguish of soul which Christ endured. Ans. There is here a fallacy in the minor proposition, in making that a cause which is not designed as such; for the descent into hell in the Creed follows the burial of Christ, not because it was accomplished after his burial; but because it is an explanation of what precedes concerning his passion, death and burial, lest something should be detracted from these; as if it said, he did not only suffer in body—he did not only die a bodily death and was not only buried; but he also suffered in soul the most extreme torments, and hellish agonies such as all the ungodly shall forever endure. The chief, and heaviest part of the sufferings of Christ is, therefore, correctly placed last, according to the order in the Creed; for it proceeds from the pains of the body to those of the soul, and from the sufferings which are visible to those that are invisible, as it were from the lighter to the heavier.
II. WHAT ARE THE FRUITS OF CHRIST’S DESCENT INTO HELL?
Christ descended into hell: 1. That we might not descend thither, and that he might deliver us from the eternal anguish and torments of hell. 2. That he might carry us with himself to heaven.
Therefore to believe in Christ, who descended into hell, is to believe that he sustained for us, in his own soul, hellish agonies and pains, and that extreme ignominy which awaits the ungodly in hell, that we might never descend thither, nor be compelled to suffer the pains and torments, which all the devils and reprobate will for ever suffer in hell; but that on the contrary, we might rather ascend with him to heaven, and there with him enjoy the greatest felicity and glory to all eternity. This is the fruit, and benefit of this article of Christ’s descent into hell.