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Believing in the Jesus Who Descended into Hell

Sermon on December 19, 1999 (a.m.)
in Holland, Michigan

Rev. Charles Terpstra

Scripture reading: Matthew 26:36-46; 27:39-54

Text: Lord's Day 16, Q & A 44

Beloved in the Lord,

We deliberately left out question 44 last time, even though it properly belongs to the rest of this sixteenth Lord's Day. The expression, "He descended into hell," is really part of the death we believe that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered. But we treat it separately because there has been, and sometimes continues to be, much confusion about this expression, and because there is some controversy surrounding it too. There is confusion, for example, over exactly what the early church meant by this phrase at the end of Article 4 of the Apostles' Creed. Did they mean a literal descent of the Lord Jesus into the place of hell, for example? Were they simply referring to the fact that Jesus went into the grave, that He descended into the tomb? Or did they mean something else by it?

At the time of the Reformation there was controversy concerning this expression too. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans both taught a literal descent of Christ into hell, while the Reformers spiritualized the expression. That is why we have the explanation that we do in our own Heidelberg Catechism.

Adding to the problem is a difficult text that appears in I Peter 3:18-20. I'd like to read that at this time as well. We will also be referring to this passage later in the course of our message this morning. There we read: "For Christ also hath once suffered for sin, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah…." That text seems to support a literal descent of Jesus into hell and is appealed to by the Catholics and Lutherans to support their positions. So we need to treat that carefully, too, this morning.

But before we get into that, there is one thing that we need to make clear. That is that Jesus Christ must have suffered and endured the reality of hell in His life and on the cross. We have to maintain that this morning. However we interpret this expression in the Apostles' Creed now, we have to maintain that, because, after all, hell is part of the punishment that we sinners deserve. So that if Jesus Christ did not suffer hell fully in some sense of the word, then He is not a complete Savior. And our hope of salvation, that is, full salvation, is dashed. Then, in some sense, we too must still suffer hell. That is why this is important that we properly understand this phrase in the Apostles' Creed - that our Lord descended into hell.

Believing in the Jesus Who Descended into Hell

  1. The Proper Idea
  2. The Necessary Suffering
  3. The Blessed Comfort That There Is for Us in Knowing That Our Lord Did Descend into Hell

The Proper Idea

It is difficult to know exactly what the early church meant by this expression, "He descended into hell." We are fairly certain that she did not mean a literal descent into the place of hell. That is not to say that the early church did not believe the reality of hell as a place of eternal torment. She certainly did. And we do with her. That is not the question this morning, whether there is a real place called hell and whether there is eternal suffering, body and soul, for ungodly, impenitent sinners in that place. Let that be clear to us, too, this morning, especially in the face of those who of late, even in evangelical circles, have denied the reality of hell and do not believe in eternal torment, but who, rather, believe that the ungodly are simply annihilated at death or in the end of the world. There is a place of punishment called "hell." And it is a place where sinners go.

But the question we face this morning is: Did Jesus go there Himself? And, is that what the early church meant when she confessed, "And He descended into hell"?

It is generally believed that the early church did not hold that. That is, a literal descent. Rather, that Jesus entered into the state of the dead, after He was crucified, dead, and buried; because that is where the expression fits in in the Apostles' Creed: "And I believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell." We believe that the early church was simply saying that Jesus descended into the full state of the dead.

The word "hell," in Scripture too, both in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament, does not always and necessarily mean the place of eternal torment. The Hebrew word and the Greek word can sometimes refer to the grave. It can also sometimes refer, just in a general way, to the state of the dead after they have died without distinguishing whether their soul goes to heaven or to hell. They just enter into the state of the dead. You have that, for example, in Psalm 16:10, where David said, expressing his confidence about his own resurrection, "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell." Now you can interpret that as "God would not leave his soul in the grave." But we believe that the soul immediately goes to be with the Lord after death. David was expressing his confidence about that, but also, with regard to his body, that God would not leave him in the state of the dead but would resurrect him. And that passage is applied to our Lord Jesus in Acts 2 so that Christ, too, had that confidence that His soul would not be left in hell, that is, in the state of the dead, but would be resurrected by His Father.

We find the same thing in Revelation 6:8, in connection with the fourth seal and the running of the pale horse. The one who sat on that horse was called Death, and Hell followed with him. Now that hell can certainly include the place of eternal torment. But it also includes the grave and the state of the dead in a general sense. Following death, hell in that sense swallows up those who have died.

So probably the early church was simply saying that, after Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, He, too, entered into the state of the dead. He so humbled Himself that He descended completely into the death that His people enter into. Prior to His resurrection, body and soul, Jesus was in the state of death. And that, beloved, certainly we believe and hold with the early church and with the church of all ages. That is a critical part of our confession about our Lord: He fully entered into our death. No part of it did He leave unsufferable, for He too descended into the depths of all of our death.

But since that time of the early church and her understanding of this expression there has been some controversy. Other ideas have been expressed about what that phrase means. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, came to teach that this expression meant a literal descent of Jesus Christ, that is, that Jesus literally went to the place of hell. But even that has to be understood properly, or has to be at least explained, because by "hell" Rome means "limbo." "Limbo," according to the Roman Catholic Church, is the place where all of the souls of the Old Testament saints were kept after they died and prior to Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Between the time that He died and the time that He rose from the dead (in other words, that three-day period when He was in the grave), Jesus descended literally into the place that the Catholics call hell (by which they mean "limbo" - the place where those souls of the Old Testament saints were kept), and He released those souls from that "prison" so that they could go to heaven, finally. They were kept there for all of those years. Now, finally, when Jesus descended into hell, into the place of limbo, He set them free and they could go to heaven.

They base that, in part, on their understanding of that passage in I Peter 3 that we read, "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison." That is their interpretation.

The Lutherans, too, teach a literal descent of Christ, but not like Rome. They say that Christ went to the place of hell (by which they mean the place of eternal torment, as we do) after His resurrection, in order to announce His victory to the ungodly and over the ungodly as well as over the grave and hell. And to announce that victory, again, in connection with I Peter 3, especially to those that were disobedient at the time prior to the Flood when God destroyed the first world. That is their interpretation of that passage in I Peter 3:20. So the Lutherans, too, believe in a literal descent, but in a different sense than the Catholics do.

Now, those ideas we believe are not correct and, in fact, are in error, especially Rome's position.

There was, we believe, no such place as limbo in which the Old Testament saints were kept, that is, their souls, prior to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as we believe there is no purgatory through which the people of God have to pass before they can enter into heaven to be with their Lord. It is a totally wrong interpretation of that passage in I Peter 3 and other passages of Scripture. The Bible nowhere teaches that. We know for example, from Psalm 73 and Psalm 16, that the hope of the Old Testament saints, too, was immediately to be in the presence of God at death, according to the soul. And we believe that their spirits were resurrected in that sense immediately when they died. They did not have to go to limbo. They did not have to go to purgatory. They went immediately to heaven for the same reason that souls of believers today immediately go to heaven - because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From the point of view of the Old Testament church that was all in promise, yet, of being fulfilled. But it was real because the promise of God would be fulfilled.

So the saints went to heaven immediately at death in the Old Testament, too. And Jesus did not have to descend into any limbo to release any souls that were being held in a "prison" so named. You will notice that the passage in I Peter 3 does not talk about Jesus releasing any souls. It says that He preached to them.

But we believe that even the Lutheran view about this descent of Jesus into hell is wrong. I Peter 3 does indeed teach that there was a proclamation of victory in hell. But it was not by Jesus personally. Rather, that Scripture teaches that that proclamation was made by the Spirit of Christ. You have to read the text carefully. The end of verse 18 says that Jesus, having been put to death in the flesh, was quickened by the Spirit, by which also (that is, through the Spirit) He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient…. Those spirits that were in hell because they did not believe the message of Noah prior to the Flood did not repent of their sins. Through the Spirit, the risen Christ preached to those souls, that is, declared His triumph, and therefore justified the church that they persecuted prior to the Flood.

So, again, Jesus Himself did not literally descend into hell. That is not what the Creed means.

Well then, what does it mean?

We have already said in part what we believe it means: that Jesus descended entirely into the realm or state of the dead.

But we can say more.

When the Reformers faced this issue in connection with their controversy with the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans they asked too, "Is there anything more in that expression?" And they answered, "Yes, there is. We believe that we may talk about a spiritual descent of our Lord Jesus Christ into the suffering of the torments of hell."

That is what Calvin, for example, taught. You can look that up in his Institutes and discover that. Jesus descended into hell in this sense, that He entered into the suffering of the torments of hell, in body and soul, in His lifetime, but especially at the end on the cross. It is that view of Calvin and other Reformers that is carried over into our Heidelberg Catechism. That is why it explains the expression in the way it does. "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 of His sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell." It explains the expression, notice, spiritually. Jesus suffered the anguish, the pains, the terrors, hellish agonies, in all of His sufferings, but especially on the cross. There is no talk of a literal descent into the place of hell.

The expression, then, as it appears in the Apostles' Creed in the fourth article, is not one of chronological order so much as it is of climactic order. That Jesus, having been crucified, dead, and buried, this was the depths of His suffering: That He also descended into hell, that is, suffered the torments of hell.

That is how deeply He humbled Himself for His people.

And that, surely, beloved, belongs to our confession about the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is absolutely essential that you and I believe that descent into hell.

The Necessary Suffering

That brings us to our second point this morning: This spiritual descent of our Lord Jesus Christ into the suffering of hell was absolutely necessary for our Lord, and absolutely necessary for our salvation. Indispensable. You see, that statement of the Creed does more than merely arouse our curiosity about what the early church understood by that expression. It brings us face to face with the theological issue of whether or not the Lord Jesus Christ suffered the punishment of hell.

That is really what we are being faced with this morning: Did Jesus suffer the punishment of hell?

We believe that He must suffer the punishment of hell or else our sin has not been completely dealt with, and the punishment of our sin has not been completely removed.

Why do we say that? Why do we have to have a Jesus who suffered hell for us? Precisely because hell is the just punishment of our sin. Hell is the place of eternal torment, we said. It is the place that God has assigned for ungodly sinners. And our sin deserves that. Not just temporal punishment, as we learned back in Lord's Day 4. It deserves punishment in the here and now. But our sin deserves eternal punishment, eternal torment even in body and soul, in the place of hell, because we have sinned against the high majesty of God, the Catechism said. We have sinned against an infinite God. So our sin deserves an infinite penalty.

God has a place for that punishment to be revealed after man has died. It is called in Scripture "the second death." It is far worse than the first death. And it is very real. It is said that our Lord Jesus taught more of hell in His ministry than He did of heaven. For example, see Matthew 25, where Jesus is describing the final judgment. He spoke of the punishment of the ungodly in verses 41 and 46 and made it plain that there is eternal torment for sinners. "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (v. 41), and then He explains why. He continues: "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal" (v. 46). Hell is as real as heaven is. And as much as we believe in eternal life in heaven, we also must believe in eternal death in hell.

If you and I are going to be delivered from that eternal punishment, Jesus, the only Savior, has to suffer that, you see. He has to suffer it. He has to suffer hell in the place of His people. He has to descend into the depths of that eternal torment for His own. And if, after all, we believe that our Lord Jesus Christ bore our sin really for our guilt and, therefore, became liable to our punishment and was subject to our punishment to the full extent, we believe that He did suffer hell. He did, as our Confession says, descend into hell. The question is: How? In what sense did He descend into hell and when did He do that?

We already said that He did not suffer that everlasting punishment by actually going to the place of hell. That was not necessary. Jesus did not have to go to the place of hell to suffer hell. He did not have to go to the place of eternal punishment to suffer eternal punishment. But somehow and somewhere Jesus had to have suffered and endured the torments of hell. When and where did He do that? The Catechism's answer tells us: "He was plunged into hellish anguish, pains, terrors, and agonies during all of His life, but especially on the cross."

There is a sense in which we can say that Jesus suffered hell all His life. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world bearing the sins of His people. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world and came under the Law and came under its condemnation in our place. He was, therefore, damned even as a little baby in the manger. In our place! So He suffered hell all of His life, because He was always subject to the holy wrath of God and the fiery indignation of the holy and just God for our sins. That means that throughout His whole lifetime, as the Catechism says too, in all of the sufferings that He endured in our place, He was tormented in body and soul under that fiery indignation of God for sin. He was very really always forsaken by God, always cut off from His favor and life. There is a sense in which that is true. That is very difficult for us to see and understand. But we believe it is real. If Jesus was bearing our sin and its full punishment all of His life, then that has to be the case. Because what else is hell but that? Suffering in body and soul the wrath of God against sin so that you are forsaken of Him and cut off from His favor in life. You have no peace, no quiet, no rest, no comfort, but only pain and trouble and distress in body and soul.

What is hell but eternal death, the conscious experience of unending separation from the God of blessing. That is the hell that Jesus went down into in all of His sufferings and especially on the cross.

This morning I want us to see that especially at the end of His life, when He went into the Garden of Gethsemane (that is why we read Matthew 26:36-46). We were given a glimpse again into what heaviness of soul as well as body our Lord Jesus Christ was subject to. Why? Why was He so sorrowful? Why was His soul so heavy when He went into that Garden to pray? Was it only because He knew Judas, who had betrayed Him, was already on his way with his band of soldiers to arrest Jesus and give Him over to the Romans to be killed? Was it only because the Lord Jesus Christ knew that this was the hour of darkness and Satan and his hordes were pursuing Jesus now with all of the power of hell to destroy Him and thwart the purpose of God in our salvation?

Oh, for that reason, too, His soul was heavy. And very, very sad. Was it only because Jesus knew His own disciples were so weak that they could not stand with Him in this hour of temptation and that Peter in a little bit would openly deny Him and say he never knew Him? And that the others would flee in shame from their Master and Lord? Oh, that was a pain of soul to Jesus too. No doubt about it.

But we believe especially that our Lord's soul was so heavy, so sorrowful, so anguished, so much in agony now because He was descending into the hell of suffering our eternal punishment. He was coming close to that point where He would be alone with God on the cross. And the shadow of the darkness of hell was burdening Him tremendously. He knew what was coming. He knew He was descending into the darkest depths that he had ever entered into yet. He sensed the awfulness of our sin as He never had before in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the terrors of hell were gripping His soul. So much so that He prayed in His agony: "Father, if there is some other way, let this cup of hell pass from me." It was so awful … if there is another way in which I can deliver My people, let that be revealed now. And let Me drink another cup and not this cup of eternal punishment for the sins of My people. So much was His soul in agony of hell that Luke tells us that He sweat as it were great drops of blood. We cannot imagine the heaviness of the soul of Jesus.

But the Father strengthened Him. Angels came to strengthen Him so that He could finish His work and bear our sin and its punishment to the end. And so we follow Jesus to the cross. There we see Him descend into hell on Calvary. And we see, by faith, that our Lord felt the pain and the anguish and the agony and the terror of hell in every blow of the nails that put Him to the tree and every barb of the enemy that was heard - "You saved others; yourself you cannot save" - and in every temptation and buffeting of Satan on that tree. "Come down, Jesus. There is another way to save your people. You don't have to descend into hell." But Jesus stays.

And He goes even deeper into hell. Because there are those three hours of darkness where He is alone, all alone, with His Father as Judge, our Judge. The full weight of our sin falls heavily upon His soul and body. And the full measure of the wrath of God, the eternal indignation and fiery wrath of God is poured out on His Son in those three hours. An eternity of hell, mind you, is compressed into three hours. And He suffers it. That is His descent into hell.

Unbelievable. And we know that He suffered it. We know that He endured it. Because He cried out of the depths of that darkness: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" That is the word out of hell - forsaken! God's own beloved Son in our place, bearing our hell, is abandoned by His Father.

Absolutely necessary, is it not? Absolutely necessary for Him to suffer, and absolutely necessary for us to believe and confess, as we do with the ancient church: "I believe that the Jesus who was crucified, dead, and buried also descended into hell in that sense." And as that confession is personal, we put before the word hell, "my." He descended into my hell to suffer what my sins deserved. Do not forget that.

The Blessed Comfort That There Is for Us in Knowing That Our Lord Did Descend into Hell

That truth, because of that, speaks volumes of comfort to God's people.

Oh, this confession of the church speaks awful woe and terror to the reprobate ungodly and to all that are impenitent. Because what it says is, "Hell is real!" It is God's punishment for sin, make no mistake about it. And because our Lord Jesus Christ descended into hell spiritually, He is Lord of it, too. As the One who is given authority in the day of judgment to send the righteous into heaven, so He is also given the power to send the impenitent into hell. Tremble before the Jesus who descended into hell, and who is coming as Judge.

But to believers, to the people of God, to you, beloved, this is the message of unbelievable comfort. Heidelberg Catechism Answer 44 puts it so beautifully, as the Catechism characteristically does, that in "my greatest temptation I may be assured and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus … hath delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell." We are delivered from hell and its torments because of what Jesus did in descending into it.

This confession means to the people of God that the punishment of sin is completely gone, for Jesus has suffered it all. He went into hell so that we never will. That is what it means.

It means that though you and I still have to suffer death, even as we saw last time, we do not have to suffer the second death. Not the second death, not purgatory either. There is no future punishment for the believer, none at all! At death the believer is immediately caught up into life everlasting in the presence of Jesus and the Father. That is the comfort for us. Because Jesus descended into hell. That is the only comfort for sinners. That you belong to Him by faith.

But, you see, that also means, as the Catechism makes plain, that there is no suffering of hell now either. People talk that way sometimes, even God's children. Especially when their afflictions are great and their souls too are heavy with anguish and agony. "My life is hell," they say. "I'm going through hell." The wicked flippantly talk that way. There is a sense in which that is true for them. But not for the child of God. As the Catechism says again, "No matter how great my temptations or trials are, even in my greatest temptations, even in my greatest afflictions, even in my greatest burdens, my greatest agonies, there is one thing I may be assured of and wholly comfort myself in: There is no hell for me now either. I am not being punished by God even when He tries me ever so severely. Therefore, I do not have to fear the terrors of hell. I do not have to feel that God has abandoned me. I do not have to feel that I have been forsaken now. I do not have to feel that God is against me. And I do not have to fear dying, thinking that perhaps when this life is over, I am heading for eternal torment in hell." No, beloved, not if your faith is in the Jesus who descended into hell. It is finished! For you and for me! No hell! Not then, but not now either.

Never, not even in weakness of faith, say "My life is hell." Never say, "God has forsaken me." Last week we had it beautifully in the communion service: "He was forsaken that we might never be forsaken." That is the truth we believe. Take hold of that even in your greatest temptations. And instead of seeing hell before you, see heaven. Because Jesus descended into hell, there is heaven for us, eternal life, favor now and everlasting favor in His presence when we die. But already now! There is heaven on earth for us, even in our sufferings, even in our dying.

Be confident, beloved, through this article. It is critical. Say it by faith and walk by faith in the Jesus who descended into hell.


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