He descended into Hell, and on the third day rose again

A few thoughts at Easter…

I read an interesting article Saturday that posed the question, what Christ did on Saturday (see: What did Jesus do on Holy Saturday?). The traditional view by many is based on the Apostles’ Creed declaration that Jesus was crucified, dead, buried and descended into Hell.

From the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell: The third day he rose again from the dead…” (Source)

However, the article points out that not all denominations believe this to be an actual descent into hell.

According to the Religion News Service, “Other Christian thinkers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin disagreed on whether Christ suffered in hell to fully atone for human sinfulness. That question, raised most recently by the late Swiss theologian Hans ur von Balthasar, stirred a fierce theological donnybrook in the Catholic journal First Things several years ago.”

Then it adds this quote from Wayne Grudem, a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, “The single argument in its favor seems to be that it has been around so long,” Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, writes in his Systematic Theology, a popular textbook in evangelical colleges. “But an old mistake is still a mistake.”

As the article points out Christ’s own words to the thief on the cross from Luke 23:43, “And Jesus said unto him, ‘Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” This was used as a firm refutation of the descent into hell by one scholar quoted in the article: “That’s the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection,” John Piper, a prominent evangelical author and pastor from Minnesota, has said. “I don’t think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise.”

So, what could descend into hell mean? The idea most appealing to me is that Christ suffered hell both on the cross in body and soul and after death in a literal way.

Christ endured a real hell that began at noon on the cross as darkness covered the land as God turned his back on his Son. Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary said the darkness was representative of everything that is anti-God.

Jesus cried out, “Eli, Eli, lma sabachthani? That is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46. As this models Psalm 22’s portrait of the suffering Savior, then we should look to Psalm 22:3 as a clue: “But thou art holy…”

God the perfect and holy could not abide sin, and in this moment, Christ was separated from God the Father. In the Holman New Testament Commentary on Matthew, Stuart K. Weber described the moment that darkness fell upon the earth as the “point he began to bear the hell (separation from God) of punishment for a world of sins.” Weber likened this to a spiritual death.

John Calvin explained it this way, “If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death… The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”

Luther’s sermon on this subject provided an important way of viewing both the creed and scripture. Luther’s in his Torgau sermon said, “‘I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, dead, buried, and descended into hell,’ that is, in the entire person, God and man, with body and soul, undivided, ‘born of the Virgin, suffered died, and buried’; in like manner I must not divide it here either, but believe and say that the same Christ, God and man in one person, descended into hell but did not remain in it; as Ps. 16:10 says of Him: ‘Thou wilt not leave My soul in hell nor suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.’ By the word ‘soul,’ He, in accordance with the language of the Scripture, does not mean, as we do, a being separated from the body, but the entire man, the Holy One of God, as He here calls Himself. But how it may have occurred that the man lies there in the grave, and yet descends into hell—that, indeed, we shall and must leave unexplained and uncomprehended; for it certainly did not take place in a bodily and tangible manner although we can only paint and conceive it in a coarse and bodily way and speak of it in pictures.”

The use of Psalm 16:10 is important. The NIV renders this passage “because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.” The Holman Standard Bible renders this passage, “For You will not abandon me to Sheol; You will not allow Your Faithful One to see decay.” The American Standard Version reads, “For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.”

The realm of the dead or Sheol is real as personally attested by Christ in his teaching of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. In this passage from the mouth of Jesus we learn that Sheol or the realm of the dead (hades in the New Testament) is a conscious state and not simply the grave—as the rich man suffered torment in the flame.

Here it would seem permissible to divide the punishment. For the rich man’s body decayed in the grave, but he suffered still. Therefore, it should be with Christ. Christ’s human body and divine soul suffered the ostracism caused by sin’s weight while on the cross in the hell of separation from God. While the body was then in the tomb paying the price of sin, Christ’s spirit entered Sheol.

He had to enter Sheol. Why else would the Psalm read, you will not leave my soul in Sheol? You cannot be left somewhere and not have been there.

Or, as it was stated in Ephesians 4:7-10,” But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)”

As to Piper’s objection about Christ’s words on the cross to the thief about today being together in paradise, it would seem a difficult thing to answer. Of course, “today” could mean Christ’s visit to the realm of the dead was brief and in victorious power since nothing could hold Christ—this would be a scene similar to what Luther would envision.

In any case, the reading provoked a day’s worth of thought on how complete the suffering of Christ was in order to save me. How profound his love to suffer death and hell (in whatever way we conceive it) in my stead. Jesus took my punishment and reconciled me to God. The resurrection becomes even more joyous by appreciating the depth of love Christ expressed for us. Our redeemer lives and because of his resurrection we shall see him in the flesh.