Whenever we confess the Apostles’ Creed (which is basically every week except communion Sundays, when we use the Nicene Creed) we confess this Biblical truth that Jesus descended into hell. But we don’t really talk about it very much. I suppose the primary reason for this is simply because there is only one Scripture passage that clearly mentions it, and even then it’s not really the main point. So we really don’t know much about the descent into hell, other than the simple fact that it happened, and it was part of Jesus’ glorification, not his humiliation.
So here’s the Scripture that speaks about it. We heard this text recently in worship, but we didn’t cover everything in it. The part about the descent into hell is italicized:
“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, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:18-20a).
So there it is. If we read it too fast, we might miss it. It also doesn’t specifically use the word hell. But hell is simply the more common word for that place where disobedient and unbelieving souls are after death. Jesus descended to that place. We believe this because Scripture says it. Period.
Because of its brevity and absence of the word hell, this passage is sometimes overlooked or altogether dismissed. If someone wants to take issue with the Apostles’ Creed, the descent into hell is usually the first thing they attack. It seems, though, that their issue is not really with the descent into hell, but with the use of formal confessions of faith in general (but that’s another topic). So they reject or overlook this text and say, See! The descent into hell is not in the Bible! Which is basically to say, Aside from the place where the Bible talks about the descent into hell, it never talks about the descent into hell. This is absurd. You can use the same trick to say, Aside from all the places that talk about adultery, the Bible never talks about adultery. And you can pick whatever topic you want and use the same trick, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. The fact of the matter is that the Bible does teach the descent into hell, so the Apostles’ Creed is correct in mentioning it.
So what exactly did Jesus do when he descended into hell? Perhaps the most important thing to note is what he didn’t do. He did not suffer in hell. He did not go to hell to pay for our sins. He did that on the cross. The Scriptures consistently attach the forgiveness of sins to Jesus’ crucifixion. Our sins were completely and totally atoned for before he descended into hell. Jesus did not go there to suffer. So instead of the descent being part of Jesus’ humiliation, we actually classify it as part of his exaltation. Notice that he was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Being made alive in the spirit is where his exaltation begins.
So Jesus went there to proclaim. Now, it doesn’t say he went there to preach the Gospel. This wasn’t a second chance for those who disobeyed during the time of Noah. We have no reason to think that. It is better to think of this proclamation as a simple proclamation of Jesus’ victory over death. And this is where we, as Christians, find comfort in Jesus’ descent into hell. There is no place in all of creation where his victory is not announced. There is no place in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth where he has not trampled death by his death. He possesses the keys of death and hell (Rev. 1:18), and he exercises authority over all things. Even though he died a sinner’s death, death and hell cannot hold him. The same, then, is true for all who believe in him. Death and hell cannot hold Jesus’ believing saints.
The peace of Christ be with you all,