In the Apostles Creed, why do we say that Jesus descended into hell? Why would he go to hell?
It is not surprising that you should wonder about this phrase since it is part of our profession of faith. Jesus, as a human being, had a body and soul. His body was put in the tomb, but where did his soul go?
To get some understanding, we need to have a language lesson. The Hebrew biblical term for the underworld, the place of the dead, is sheol. Hades is the Greek translation for the Hebrew.
In English, sheol/hades is translated as "hell" which is derived from the place of the dead in Germanic mythology and comes to us through the Latin inferna.
According to several NT texts (Matthew 11.23, 16.18; Luke 10.15, 16.23), Sheol/hades, has two divisions: the abode of the saved and of the lost.
The first, called paradise/heaven or Abraham's bosom is a temporary place for righteous Israelites who died before Christ's coming. The other, the Greek gehenna or hell is the destination of the wicked, damned for eternity.
In the parable of Lazarus, the poor beggar and the rich man (Luke 16.19-31), Christ affirms this strict division. The rich man, who is suffering from the flames and who begs Abraham to send Lazarus to put cool water on his tongue, is told that "between you and us a great chasm has been fixed" (16.26) that cannot be crossed either way.
Christ's descent into hell is a way of saying he died a real death. His soul, separated from his body, descended among the dead. Paul wrote: "When it says 'he ascended,' what does that mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the very one who ascended high above the heavens that he might fill all things" (Ephesians 4.9-10).
We believe that the sin of Adam closed the gates of heaven. The souls of the righteous awaited the redeemer in the land of the dead. It is to this abode of the righteous that Christ descended and not to gehenna, the abode of the damned.
Why then did we go back to saying, Christ descended to hell, instead of to the dead? It is because the most recent translations have been made to correspond more closely to the Latin.
An unusual text in 1 Peter 3.18-19 speaks of Christ preaching to the spirits in prison. Who are these spirits? In the New Testament, "spirits" is used to describe angels or demons and not humans.
The word "preached" used here does not mean a message of redemption since angels cannot be redeemed. It is rather a proclamation, probably a declaration of victory over Satan.
Some believe that Christ went to the hell of the wicked to be further punished for our sins but that idea is not supported by Scripture. By his death on the cross, he took the burden of the whole human race: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5.21).
Christ offered the perfect sacrifice once and for all time by dying on the cross.
Jesus' suffering ended the moment he died. However, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the power of Christ's presence was felt to the furthest reaches of hell, thus conquering the devil in his home territory.
What can all this mean for us today? As Christ delivered the righteous, we can hold to a firm hope that Christ will deliver us in our trials and tribulations.
When we feel a sense of abandonment by God, if the silence is deafening and the darkness is blinding, we know Christ is with us as he experienced that final loneliness on the cross. When no voice can reach us, Christ is there.
That fact that Christ did not deliver all those in the underworld, those in gehenna, must lead us to a fear of hell and to avoidance of serious sin.
Christ could have gone immediately to the Father in heaven. Instead, Christ descended into the place of ultimate spiritual desolation and isolation.
This should renew our awe and gratitude at what Christ did for us. It should deepen our awareness and appreciation of his love for us. It should increase our closeness to Christ and our willingness to welcome him into our hearts and lives.
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