9. Descent into Hell
He descended into hell
The Creed does not in fact refer to Christ's descent into hell. The sentence should read, 'He descended to Hades'. Hades in the New Testament is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol, which is often used in the Old Testament. And Sheol does not refer to hell. Hades and Sheol refer rather to the place of the dead, the shadowy realm in which those who have died reside.
This statement is one of the most perplexing in the Creed and is omitted in some versions although it is found in the oldest. Christ's descent to hell must not only be understood together with his suffering and death on the cross but also with his resurrection and ascension.
The statement to be sure has been customarily based on some passages in the New Testament, all of which are exegetically problematic. The passage that immediately comes to mind is of course 1 Peter 3:18b-20 where the author speaks about Christ's ministry to 'the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built'. Some commentators interpret the passage in line with this statement in the Creed. According to this interpretation, during the period between his death and resurrection, Christ descended into hell to preach to the souls imprisoned therein. But what was the purpose of this 'ministry' and what is the content of his message?
Those who interpret this passage in this way can be further divided into two groups. The first group believes that Christ descended to hell and offered salvation to the souls that are held captive there. Those souls who accept Christ's offer of salvation are, according to this view, rescued from the eternal punishment that awaits the wicked. In his commentary on this passage John Calvin, the second generation Reformer, rightly refers to this interpretation as 'strange' since Scripture clearly teaches that 'those who continue unbelieving to death have no hope left'. This passage therefore does not teach that at the death of Christ unbelieving souls in hell's prison are given a second chance.
The second group agrees with Calvin, but maintains that Christ descended into hell in order to announce his condemnation to the unbelievers during Noah's day. What remains unclear, however, is why such an announcement is necessary at all. The main problem with this interpretation is that it assumes too much. This passage does not refer - explicitly or implicitly - to Christ's descent into hell. Neither does it refer to the interim period between his death and resurrection.
Another passage that has sometimes been commandeered to provide scriptural substantiation to a particular interpretation of this statement concerning Christ's descent into hell is Ephesians 4:8-10. In this passage, ascension is contrasted with and presupposes a descent. Paraphrasing Psalms 18:8, Paul speaks of the ascension of Christ in verse 8. In verse 9, he maintains that ascension presupposes a prior descent: 'What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?'
Some interpreters have argued that 'lower, earthly regions' refers to hell. This qualifies this passage as an appropriate text on which to base the creed's assertion about Christ's descent into hell. Much depends on whether 'lower, earthly regions' refer to hell in this passage. Some commentators, including Calvin, do not think that this passage has to do with Christ's descent into hell at all. Rather, they argue convincingly, that ascension is contrasted with incarnation, and the statement regarding Christ's descent 'to the lower, earthly regions' refer to his taking on human flesh - that is, to his incarnation - and not his descent into hell.
So, what does Christ's descent to hell really mean?
In the first place, the term 'hell' in the English translation of the Creed is misleading. Hell immediately conjures the image of the place where the wicked are being punished by God. The Creed does not in fact refer to Christ's descent into hell. The sentence should read, 'He descended to Hades'. Hades in the New Testament is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol, which is often used in the Old Testament. And Sheol does not refer to hell. Hades and Sheol refer rather to the place of the dead, the shadowy realm in which those who have died reside. Hades neither connotes the place of the damned nor a place where the wicked are punished.
The New Testament uses another Greek word, gehenna, to refer to hell, the place of eternal punishment. This is brought out very clearly in Matthew 5:29-30 where Jesus said that it is better to lose your hand or your eye than for your whole body to be thrown into gehenna. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus warned that it is not necessary to fear those who can only kill the body; but it is necessary to fear the One who can cast body and soul into gehenna. Thus Hades does not refer to hell, the place of punishment; Gehenna does. Hades simply refers to the place of the dead.
Christ, the incarnate Son of God, did not only lived our life. He also died our death! His identification with us was not superficial; it was the fullest possible identification, even to the point of death. . . . If Christ did not really die, but only pretended to, then he did not really rise from the dead. If Christ did not really die on the Cross, then his identification with sinful humanity is incomplete. And if this is so, so is the salvation that he offers.
This statement therefore reiterates a previous statement that Jesus Christ was 'crucified, dead and buried': it seeks to emphasise the fact that Christ really died on the cross. Some may wonder why such a repetition is necessary, especially in a document which, as a rule, tries to be economical in what it says. The answer to this question is both historical and theological. The Creed arose in a period when fierce battles were fought against heresies regarding the person of Christ. One of these christological heresies, Docetism, was rife. We have already encountered this heresy in previous sections. To repeat, Docetism maintains that the Son of God only appeared to have taken up human flesh, although in reality he did not do so. Thus a Docetic christology wishes to maintain the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity.
Several philosophical presuppositions help to shape this christology. The first is the simple assertion, so common among the Greek philosophers that divinity cannot come in contact with human flesh. According to this view, human flesh is evil - it is evil because all matter is evil. Deity and humanity, the holy and the profane simply cannot mix. The second presupposition is that God cannot undergo change. He is immutable, and cannot be subjected to any change whatsoever. To say that God experiences death in Christ is for the Greeks not only foolishness, it is blasphemous!
The Creed rejects Docetism by emphasising the depth of the Son of God's identification with fallen humanity. Christ, the incarnate Son of God, did not only lived our life. He also died our death! His identification with us was not superficial; it was the fullest possible identification, even to the point of death. This emphasis, as we have previously argued, is imperative if we are to take the salvific nature of Christ's death and resurrection seriously. If Christ did not really die, but only pretended to, then he did not really rise from the dead. If Christ did not really die on the Cross, then his identification with sinful humanity is incomplete. And if this is so, so is the salvation that he offers.
The creed's statement regarding Christ's descent into hell points us to the fullest implication of the incarnation. He bore our sins and became sin for our sakes. He suffered our death, and took up his position together with the rest of sinful humanity forsaken by an angry and righteous God. The fullest expression of this is found in his cry on the cross: 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' ('My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?') There the one who from all eternity has been at the bosom of the Father suddenly and tragically experiences the Father's rejection and wrath for our sake. 'He descended into hell' brings this out in the way that 'crucified, dead and buried' does not.
In most Protestant Churches it is customary to observe Good Friday and celebrate Easter. What is perhaps unknown to most Protestants is that the Church has also observed Holy Saturday, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Holy Saturday, which is part of the continuum with the Passion and Good Friday, anticipates Easter. It announces Christ's true solidarity with the dead because on this day, it was the dead man Jesus who joined the dead, and not a victorious living one of Easter.
It can be said that Western and Eastern Christianity have depicted different sides of the same christological coin: the Latin Churches prohibit the singing of hallelujahs on this day, while the Greek Churches already begin to celebrate the victory in anticipation of Easter, albeit in subdued tones. The two approaches compliment rather than contradict each other because the death of Christ and his resurrection cannot be understood in isolation from each other. Death and resurrection form the single work of the Saviour, who, in the words of the Nicene Creed, 'for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven'.
Dr. Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.