“He descended into Hell.” Ruminations on the Work of Christ between Good Friday and Easter

One of the most problematic phrases in the Apostles’ Creed for many people today is the assertion that Jesus “descended into Hell” (descenit ad inferos in the original Latin.)

Some congregations just omit it, others alter it. Some say he descended “to the dead, ”which seems to me to be redundant after we have just said, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The United Methodist Church omits it altogether. It doesn’t appear at all in the Nicene Creed, although there is a long tradition of iconography in the Eastern Church of the “Descent into Hell.” The Athanasian Creed contains it.

For this post I am going to skirt the complex question of what the term “hell” even means.  For many believers today the phrase means nothing more that the agony of Jesus’ death on the Cross, a metaphorical Hell. It was certainly at least that. I think it is means more.

It must be admitted that the Scriptural evidence is slender. Among the texts used are: Ephesians 4:7-10., 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6. None of them are without ambiguity.

But the belief that Jesus descended into Hell is an early one in the church. A creed from Syria in the Third Century says that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate and departed in peace, in order to preach to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints concerning the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead.”

The early doctrine based on this phrase is “The Harrowing of Hell,” attested to by several of the early important Church Fathers, including Tertullian, Origen, and Hippolytus. Later Ambrose of Milan (who may have been the principle author of the Apostles Creed) refers to it.

The thrust of the doctrine can perhaps best be stated by the current catechism of the Roman Catholic Church which asserts: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened Heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.”

Since I generally operate out of what I call “a hermeneutic of trust” for both Scripture and the ancient traditions of the church, the first questions I ask are why is it there? And what does it mean?

The obvious answer is that there are three days between the death of Jesus on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter. So where was he and what was he doing?

My answer to both those questions is a simple one.  It seems to me the descent into Hell functions theologically to show the scope of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. Eastern icons often show the Resurrected Christ rising out of Hell dragging Adam and Eve with him, one with each hand.

Whether it is symbolized by this deliverance of our original forebears, the preaching to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or to all who died before the first Good Friday, his descent affirms that there is no place, even Hell, where Jesus’ saving work cannot go, no corner of the cosmos untouched by his atoning Cross. This reminds me of the words in Psalm 139, where the Psalmist asks God, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there? If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Vs. 7, 8.)

This is the love that will not let us go.  This is what Jesus died for.

To end this meditation I share an irreverent contemporary prose-poem sent to me from a friend of mine, which imagines Jesus waking up in Hell:

Goodtime Jesus
by James Tate

Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn’t afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

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