I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
from there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen.
The eighth line of the Apostles' Creed reads, "He descended into hell." While man-made creeds do not carry the authority of Scripture, they are generally meant as accurate representations of the teaching found in God's inerrant Word. This presents us an interesting question then: how accurate is the Apostles' Creed in its presentation of this point?
There are a number of passages from which the teaching arises, but primarily, theologues will use verses from Matthew 12:38-41, Romans 10:7, and Ephesians 4:7-10 to demonstrate Christ's descent to hell. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus compares himself to Jonah proclaiming, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." And clearly, when Christ died, he gave up his spirit (John 19:30). But to where did his spirit go?
In the end, it comes down to understanding what Scripture means when it speaks of Christ descending into the lower parts of the earth (or the heart of the earth). His soul spent three days and three nights in that abode. Almost unanimously, this deep part of the earth is interpreted as signifying the netherworld (i.e., that place wherein the spirits of the dead make their abode) hell didn't begin to take on its modern meaning conoting that particular location wherein the damned are punished eternally until quite recently. There are a number of directions Christians depart at this point and that is what is the activity in which Christ was engaged these three days.
There are three notable perspectives:
- Christ spent his three days suffering the wrath of God.
- Christ spent his three days proclaiming his victory over the Satanic kingdom.
- Christ spent his three days preaching the Gospel to the Old Testament believers who dwelt in a separated portion of the netherworld.
The first position benefits from the comparison between Jonah and Christ. It is not difficult to see that just as Jonah spent his time in suffering in the deep (or the grave), so too might not have Christ suffered in the land of the dead? Peter claims in Acts 2:24 that Christ, by his resurrection, was loosed from the pangs of death, "because it was not possible for him to be held or conquered by them" meaning that until he arose, Christ laboured under the throes of death. He suffered then, in this case, that we, his sheep, might be spared such.
The second perspective presents a more cheery picture Christ descending into the depths of hell to proclaim his Gospel victory. Satan defeated. Death defeated. And the Lord of life victorious and boasting in triumph! A beautiful picture. Unfortunately, there seems little evidence from Scripture that this occurred during the three days and three nights, and it presumes that Satan and his fallen angels make their abode in "the heart of the earth" something else not really stated in Scripture.
The third and final position that we will here look at arrives from a difficulty in interpreting 1 Peter 3:18-20. Christ, it is supposed, entered into the depths to proclaim the Gospel to Old Covenant believers. The biggest question burdening such an interpretation is one of motivation: why did Christ specially go to preach to those who already believed? All of the Old Testament saints had already received the Gospel by grace through faith. It was accounted them as righteousness. So then, why? While Christ may indeed have preached the Gospel so, it certainly doesn't seem necessary.
In the end, true saints believe along a number of different interpretive lines at this point. The Christian's solemn and joyous duty then is to allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves. But as this is not a matter of division, every Christian should allow his brother some breadth in his interpretation, always maintaining godly fellowship borne in love and charity.