We continue our exposition on the Apostles Creed with the third phrase.
He descended into Hell.
It is documented that Jesus, after his death and burial, descended into Hell. We who confess this creed find scriptural support for this statement in 1 Peter 3:18-19. 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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18-19 ESV) and in Ephesians 4:9. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? (Ephes. 4:9 ESV).
Hell is a hard concept. Many today would like to believe there is no Hell. I am one of them. Unfortunately, I cannot believe that there is no Hell. Hell is a real place described in God’s word, which is true. God does not lie. As a human it pains me to know that many of my human brothers and sisters will suffer eternity there.
It also pained Jesus to know this. It was because he did not want anyone, anyone!, to suffer Hell that he became a man to die for all of mankind, and make payment for their sin. However, Jesus Himself witnesses to the reality of Hell in many places throughout the Gospel.
One of the most telling places where Jesus witnesses to the reality of Hell is Matthew 25:41.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41 ESV).
Jesus says that these will be His words on the last day to those who are assembled on his left, the unrighteous who did not believe in Him. But notice what Jesus says to those on his right: Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, (Matthew 25:34 ESV).
There is marked difference between the kingdom of heaven and that of Hell. One was prepared for us, by Christ’s death and resurrection, from the foundation of the world. That is, heaven was prepared for us. The other, Hell, was not prepared for us, but for the devil and his angels. Why wasn’t Hell prepared for us? It wasn’t prepared for us because God loves us and wanted to redeem us from our sin. He did that with His Son’s death and resurrection. It is not God’s will that any should die, as we read in 1 Timothy. “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” (1 Tim. 2:3-4 ESV). In other words, God did not prepare Hell for us because He doesn’t want any of us to suffer there. But if we will not listen to Him, that is where we will go, not by God’s choice, but by our own choice. God’s choice is for us to live with Him eternally in heaven, the kingdom He prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
It must be emphasized that Jesus did not suffer in Hell. Jesus suffered on earth. His days on earth are referred to as His humiliation. That is the time He took to shed his heavenly glory and many of his divine attributes, such as His ability to be present everywhere, see everything, and know everything, and humiliate Himself by becoming man. During this time He led a life that was like ours in every way except that He did not sin. Rather He became sin for us. That is, He took on our sin and carried it to the cross to die for us. Being perfectly righteous He was unable to die until He had taken on our sins because death is the wages of sin, Romans 6:23. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 6:23 ESV).
Jesus’ death and burial was the end of his humiliation and suffering. His descent into Hell was the beginning of His exaltation. That is the time when he resumed the divine attributes He left behind in his humiliation. He went to Hell to proclaim victory to the spirits in prison, not to suffer. He is both God and Man. As God, He is also the one who created Hell for the devil and his angels. Hell is therefore His ground, not the devil’s; rather it is the devil’s prison cell. Jesus went there to proclaim victory over death to the spirits in prison. The war is over, Jesus was victorious in His fight. By laying down His life for us, He conquered death. Now we like Paul can taunt death saying: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55 ESV).
So we do not mourn that our God went to Hell, but rejoice that He was able to conquer death on our behalf so that we would not have to suffer the eternal damnation the devil and his angels have prepared for them. Rather, we can inherit the kingdom our Father prepared for us from the foundation of the world.