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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Did Christ ever descend to hell?



The Apostles' Creed
The basic creed of Reformed churches, as most familiarly known, is called the Apostles' Creed. It has received this title because of its great antiquity; it dates from very early times in the Church, a half century or so from the last writings of the New Testament.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
    the Maker of heaven and earth,
    and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
    born of the Virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
    and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
    from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
    the holy catholic church;
    the communion of saints;
    the forgiveness of sins;
    the resurrection of the body;
    and the life everlasting.
       Amen.
There are two passages in the New Testament that, taken a certain way, would seem to indicate that he did.  One is in Ephesians 4:9 (ESV): In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?, where it says that Christ descended into the lower parts of the earth. This probably means that he descended to the earth, which is the lower parts. The "of" there doesn't mean that he is going under the earth. So I don't think that text warrants the interpretation that he descended into hell.
The other text is 1 Peter 3:18-20  (ESV): 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water., where it says that Christ went to speak to the spirits who are now in bondage. That is, they have died—having lived in the days of Noah—and they are now in bondage; and Christ went to speak to them. Some take that to mean that between Good Friday and Easter Christ went to hell and he preached the gospel there. But I don't think that is the meaning of this text either. I think it means that when these people were alive in the days of Noah, in the Spirit Christ spoke to them through the preaching of Noah; and now they are in prison.

So my conclusion is that there is no textual basis for believing that Christ descended into hell. In fact, he said to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." That's the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection. He said, "Today—this Friday afternoon, after we're both dead—you and I will be in paradise together." I don't think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise. I think he went to heaven and that Jesus was there with him.

So I don't say that phrase "he descended into hell" when I recite the Apostle's Creed. But study it yourself and see whether you think there are other foundations for it. As for me, though, I would say that the foundation for that particular sentence in the Apostle's Creed is pretty weak biblically.
N.B. “I” in this article is John Piper, who is pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

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