Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 16
Question 40. Why was it necessary for Christ to humble Himself even unto death?
Answer. Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for sins could be made no otherwise than by the death of the Son of God.
Question 41. Why was He also “buried”?
Answer. Thereby to prove that He was really dead.
Question 42. Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?
Answer. Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life.
Question 43. What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?
Answer. That by virtue thereof our old man is crucified, dead, and buried with Him; that so the corrupt inclinations of the flesh may no more reign in us; but that we may offer ourselves unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
Question 44. Why is there added, “He descended into hell”?
Answer. 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.
True to its form, the Catechism continues its theme of personal comfort. We come now to the rather morbid subjects of death, the grave, and hell, and the Catechism again gives comfort. Perhaps there is no place that comfort is so needed, or experienced so richly, as when we stand at the grave, or lie on our deathbed. This Lord’s Day speaks, in a very beautiful way, to the dying and grieving believer.
The Savior’s Death and Burial
If, in the suffering of the cross, especially in the three hours of darkness, Christ made full atonement for sin, so that He could say “It is finished,” then why did He continue to suffer beyond this. Why did He have to die and be buried?
The answer to that question shows that in all His suffering He took our place. Just as in His crucifixion He was bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows, so in His death and burial He “lays down His life” for us. Beyond the payment for our sins, Christ suffered death and the grave to conquer these enemies for us too. In His death, He entered into the fullness of the consequences of our sin, for “the wages of sin is death.” In His burial we see, not only that He was truly dead, but that He enters into the full reality of our suffering, the great and last enemy, which is death. How many of us have not experienced the bitterness and the power of the grave, standing there to bury a loved one? From an earthly and material point of view, this is it. There is no reversal, no turning back the clock. The earthly ties are broken. The grave, it seems, has won.
But Jesus was buried to overcome every aspect of death, including the grave. When He was buried, “his flesh did not see corruption,” and it was not possible for death to hold Him (). This, because He had “loosed the pains of death” ( ). By paying the price of sin, He removed the power and penalty of death. He did not fear death, but entered there to set all His own free.
Our Death and Burial
But why, then, do we still die? If Christ’s death paid the full penalty price for our sins, and if He entered the grave itself as the victor for us, then why has every New Testament Christian who is in heaven today had to die to get there?
For two reasons.
One, because death for the believer is an entrance into eternal life. Death is not an enemy, but a servant. We should not fear death, but greet it with joy and confidence, the joy of entering into the presence of Christ. Death is the doorway to our heavenly home. It is the gate to the New Jerusalem. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (). Our death is the answer to Christ’s prayer, “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am” ( ). Death is gain, the great gain of being with Christ ( ).
The other reason we must die is to put an end to our earthly struggle, to abolish sin. Oh, to be freed from the body of this death and the daily struggles with the sinful desires of the flesh! This is the believer’s prayer, every day, when he says, “Give me grace for another day. Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from the evil one.” Our physical death is the final answer to that prayer, the final washing away of sin, the final cleansing act. What freedom comes to the souls of believers at death: no more proud thoughts, no more sharp words, no more sinful desires, no more sin! Did you ever think of death that way? An end to a struggle, not now a struggle because of disease or poverty or a hard life, but an end to the struggle with sin!
Neither should the grave frighten us. Jesus says that dead believers are “not dead but sleeping” (; cf. also ; ; ; ; ). With this comparison, Jesus teaches us that the grave is not hopeless, but only a bed of rest. When we put our children to bed at night, we expect them to awake refreshed in the morning. In our graves we will be waiting to be awakened on that great day when Christ will come through the cemeteries of this earth and bid us wake up to a new morning and a new day. And so, burial is not the end, but only the sowing of a seed, from which a new plant will come. “It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory: It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” ( ).
And do you know that all of this already begins within the believer on this side of the grave! Our Savior’s death was not only a payment for sin that assures us of heaven, but it also means that our sinful natures have been put to death in this life. We are “crucified with Christ” () and “dead to sin” ( ). This does not mean that the fight with sin is finished, but rather that the fight for holiness can begin. Where Christ lives in a man, the power of sin is broken and the evil lusts of the flesh no longer hold sway, but that person is dedicated in gratitude to serve his Savior.
Descended into Hell
There is no phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that has caused so much confusion and controversy as this one, “He descended into hell.” The confusion comes from the words used (“descended into hell” seems to imply a literal descent into the place of eternal suffering), and from the placement of this phrase at the end of Christ’s suffering, after His death and burial.
To understand it properly, the main question is not, What was originally meant by this phrase? That question cannot be answered, because there is nothing that church historians have ever discovered that tells us what was originally intended. In fact, historians differ on when this was first included in the Apostles’ Creed, and even whether it belongs.
The main question also is not, How was it traditionally understood by the church through the ages? If we would go this route, we would probably have to drop it from the Creed, since the Roman Catholic interpretation, already in the Middle Ages, was that Christ descended to hell, the place of everlasting torment, for the few days between His death and resurrection. But Jesus told the thief on the cross that they would be together that very day in paradise (). Besides, Jesus’ cries “It is finished” ( ) and “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” ( ) teach that He had no more suffering to endure in hell. And , which says that the gospel was “preached also to them that are dead” does not mean that someone went to them after they were dead and preached the gospel, but rather that those who are now dead, had the gospel preached to them while they were alive during the Old Testament ( ; ).
So, how is it to be understood? Is it legitimate for us to confess that Christ “descended into hell”?
Some say that “hell” here refers to “hades” or the grave, that this phrase refers to nothing more than His burial. But then it would be entirely redundant, for we have already confessed that He was buried.
The only way to understand Christ’s descent into hell is spiritually. Then we look at this last phrase on Christ’s suffering as the climax, or the expression of the most intense form of His suffering. He did not only suffer physically, but His suffering was the experience in His soul of the full weight of the wrath of God, equivalent to the torments of hell. Christ’s experience in the darkness of Calvary is expressed in His cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (). Surely, there is no suffering so deep, no hell so great, as what the Son of God Himself, as He endured the punishment of our sin, expresses in these words! God had turned His face from the Son of His love.
Because of this, we can have comfort in all the troubles and torments of life. Not only will we never have to experience a suffering like to His, but we can also have the confidence in our sufferings that God will never turn His face from us. Instead, we have a merciful and a sympathetic Savior who has delivered us from all hell, and is able to help us in every trouble that comes our way.
“Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” ().
Questions for Discussion
1. Why did Jesus still have to die physically after He had made the payment for sin?
2. What is the significance of Jesus’ burial?
3. Describe the bitterness of death and the grave? Have you ever had to face this? What fears do you have concerning death?
4. How are the death and burial of Christ a comfort to Christians in the face of death?
5. In what ways is death a servant to believers?
6. What two beautiful illustrations does the Bible use to speak of the believer’s burial?
7. What does it mean that we are “crucified with Christ”?
8. When did Christ descend into hell? Did He actually go to the place, hell? Why/why not?
9. What comfort is there for us in knowing that Christ actually suffered the torments of hell?