The third possible explanation of the article concerning Christ’s descension into hell, and the one which, according to Dr. Phillip Schaff (Creeds of Christendom, II, 46), presents the meaning of the early church, is that it refers to “an actual self “-manifestation of Christ after the crucifixion to all the departed spirits.” And Dr. Schaff continues: “As such the descent is a part of the universality of the scheme of redemption, and forms the transition from the state of humiliation to the state of exaltation.”
Whether or not “this is the historical explanation, according to the belief of the ancient church,” as Dr. Schaff thinks, we have no means to verify. However, the explanation is rather vague, and it is rather difficult to see how the “descent into hell” in this sense could be a part of the universality of the scheme of redemption. Besides, it opens a wide field of speculation as to the purpose and effect of this self-manifestation of Christ to all the dead in hades. Why should Christ thus manifest Himself to all the dead, and what could such a self-manifestation add to the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Savior of His people?
We need not seriously consider the view that our Lord, after His crucifixion, descended into the place of desolation in order to suffer the tortures of the damned, neither can this have been the meaning of the early church, if the explanation of Dr. Schaff given above is correct. Whatever the early church may have understood by hades, it certainly cannot have been the place of eternal punishment, for it was to all the departed spirits, that Christ is supposed to have manifested Himself. Besides, the notion that the Savior suffered the torments of hell after His crucifixion is contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. Evident it is that the Lord, after He gave up the ghost, cannot have suffered the torments of hell in body and soul, for His body rested in the grave of Joseph of Arimathea. Besides, such a view would be in conflict with the word our Lord addressed to the malefactor from the cross: “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” And had He not announced in His next to the last cross-utterance: “It is finished”? Surely, this triumphant outcry was uttered in the consciousness, that the work of redemption, the sacrifice of reconciliation, had been completed and perfected, and that no more suffering remained to be endured.
Nor can this possibly be the meaning of, as quoted by the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost, : “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” The reference here is not the place of eternal torture, but to hades, the bodiless state of the dead. In that state the Lord’s soul was in paradise, and His body lay in the grave. And the meaning of the passage is that God would not leave Christ’s soul in that disembodied state, neither would He allow His body to be swallowed up by the corruption of the grave, but He would glorify His Holy One in the resurrection. This is, evident from the following: 1. It may not be ignored that in Ps. 16 it is David that is speaking. True, he speaks as a type of Christ, and ultimately his words are applicable to Christ only. Nevertheless, what is true of the antitype principally, and in the full sense of the word, is certainly predicated of the type in the first instance. The words, therefore, must also be applied to David. The psalmist was confident, and that, too, with his eye on the Holy One that was to come, that God would not leave his soul in hell, but through death would show him the pathway of life. But it follows that David cannot be speaking of the place of eternal damnation, but that he refers to sjeeol, the state of the dead. 2. On the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter is not speaking of Christ’s deliverance from the place of the damned, but of His deliverance from death, and of His glorious resurrection. This is evident from the twenty fourth verse: “Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should beholden of it.” In proof of this, namely, that it was not possible that Christ should beholden of death, he refers to the passage from the sixteenth psalm. The very purpose for which it is quoted, therefore proves that the apostle Peter was not thinking of a descent of Christ into the place of the damned, but simply of hades, the state of the dead, and of Christ’s deliverance from it. 3. And this is also the application made of this text from the sixteenth psalm by the apostle, when he says: “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne: He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption.”
In the light of Scripture, therefore, the view that Christ personally descended into the place of the damned there to suffer vicariously the pains of eternal torture, cannot stand.*
Roman Catholic theologians appeal toto support their view that Christ descended into what they call Limbo, a portal of hell, in order to deliver thence the Old Testament saints, to whom heaven, was not opened until Christ’s own ascent from death into glory. Thus in “Radio Replies,” the Rev. Dr. Leslie Rumble gives the following answer to the question why Christ descended into hell: “Christ did not go to hell in the modern and restricted sense of the word. At the time when the Apostles’ Creed was composed, the word hell was used to designate any state of existence lower than heaven. After his death, our Lord’s soul went, says St. Peter, to preach to those spirits that were in prison. That is, he joined those souls which were detained from the fullness of heaven and who were awaiting the opening of heaven to mankind by Him, This descent of Christ’s soul into hell was obviously not to the hell of the eternally lost, but to what we call the Limbo or detention place of the souls of the just who lived prior to our Lord’s coming into this world.”
However, this bit of Roman Catholic exegesis cannot stand for a moment, even though there may be room for difference of opinion as to the true meaning of the passage in I Peter 3:19, 20. This well-known passage reads as follows: “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, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” Now let us note: 1. That the apostle is not speaking here at all of a- personal descent of Christ into “prison”, after His crucifixion and before His resurrection, but of a going to preach to the spirits that were in prison after His resurrection and through the Spirit. This is the simple and plain meaning of the words. The introductory words of vs. 19, “by which” refer back to the latter part of the eighteenth verse: “being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.” And then follows: “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” The order of the phrases, therefore, demands that we conceive of this mission of Christ to the spirits in prison, as having taken place after His resurrection. Moreover, He went, not in His human nature, or in His disembodied soul, but in the Spirit by whom also He was quickened from the dead. And through this Spirit He is able to send His Word down unto the spirits in prison without a personal descent. 2. That the apostle by the phrase “spirits in prison,” certainly cannot designate the Old Testament saints, unto whom heaven was not supposed to be opened until the coming of Christ. For they are described as those “which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, when the ark was a preparing.” Now, this so very clearly refers to the ungodly of Noah’s day, when the righteous were persecuted all the day long, and God saved them by the waters of the deluge, that one can only be amazed at the curious bit of exegesis that makes Old Testament saints out of them. 3. That the apostle does not speak with one word, nor even suggest in any way, that these “spirits in prison” were delivered and taken to heaven by Christ, The text simply informs us that He “preached” to them. And the word used here for “preached” does not mean at all that He preached the gospel unto them, but simply that He proclaimed, announced something as a herald. And besides, Scripture knows nothing of a Limbo, in which the Old Testament saints were kept until heaven was opened for them by Christ.
For all these reasons we must reject the Roman Catholic view of the descension of Christ into hell.
Nor does the Lutheran explanation that after His death and before His resurrection, Christ descended into hell to proclaim His victory to the “spirits in prison” find support in the text from Peter 3:19, 20. It is, indeed, quite in harmony with that passage to say that Christ announced His victory to those spirits that persecuted His people, and mocked at His cause in the world, but this word of victory was proclaimed by Christ, not between His death and resurrection, nor by a personal descent into hell, but after His resurrection and exaltation, and through the Spirit that is given Him.
We conclude, therefore, that, whatever may have been the significance of the clause concerning the descension of Christ into hell in the mind of the early church, Scripture knows of no such descent into the place of the damned nor of such a self-manifestation of Christ to all the departed spirits.
And if the article in the Apostles’ Creed that speaks of this descent is to be retained, the explanation of it offered by the Heidelberg Catechism must be adopted, in spite of the fact that this is not its historical meaning.
Christ endured inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies.”
He endured them in all his sufferings, but especially on the cross. And even on the cross there is a gradual increase in his suffering of these hellish agonies. This is evident from all that occurs on and about the cross. During the first half of the six hour period of the crucifixion, the sun still sheds its light upon the awful spectacle on Calvary, the enemies have the audacity to mock and jeer at the crucified One, and the Lord Himself finds it possible to take interest in the things about Him, praying for His enemies, committing His mother to the care of the disciple whom He loved, and assuring the penitent malefactor of final salvation. But during the last three hours, the cross is completely taken out of men’s hands. Darkness, that dreadful symbol of God’s wrathful presence, descends on the scene; the enemies, amazed at the fearful omen, cease from mockery, and grow silent; and for the space of three hours the crucified One is completely wrapped up in His own suffering: not a word is heard from His lips. Then, almost at the end of these last three hours of His passion, He makes it known that He has been descending into the depths, that He has, indeed, reached the very bottom of hell, in the question of amazement: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
What does it mean?
The answer follows presently: “It is finished!”
The measure of suffering, and of obedience, is filled. All that was to be borne of the wrath of God against the sin of all the elect had been endured even to the end. Nothing, emphatically nothing, remains to procure for us eternal righteousness and life.
The Son of God had tasted all there is to be tasted in the agony of death as the expression of God’s just wrath.
That is the meaning of the descension into hell.
Hence, the Catechism, contemplating this descent into hell in its relation to and significance for the believer, explains that it assures the latter, even in his greatest temptations, that he is saved, delivered from the wrath of God and the torments of hell.
Many are the temptations. And let us remember that the German word that is translated by “temptations” here is Anfechtungen. It has a slightly different connotation from temptations. It denotes that the believer is assailed, from within and from without, to move him from his sure ground of confidence in Christ, of his assurance that his sins are forgiven, and that he has obtained eternal righteousness and life by mere grace. His own conscience accuses him, sin from within would bring him to doubt, the valley of the shadow of death appears to testify that God’s wrath is still upon him, the world laughs at his confidence, the devil assails his assurance.
Can, he, then, be saved?
In all these temptations, however, he clings by faith to the death of the Son of God, that finished it all, which was a suffering of hellish agonies in his stead, and in his behalf.
And from the darkness of his present death, and from the depth of his greatest temptations, contemplating that death of the Son of God,, that death even unto the bottom of hell, and clinging to that Son of God, Who died and was raised, he knows that nothing remains to be done, and that he is forever delivered from torments of hell.
The death of the Son of God is the sole ground of his confidence.
Nothing can separate him from His love!
* This is also my reply to the article by J. J. H. in the previous Standard Bearer. H. H.