February 24, 2012

Did Jesus Go to Hell?

Did Jesus burn in hell between the cross and the resurrection? That is what some Christians think when they read the line in the Apostles' Creed that states, "He descended to hell." The is the most controversial and difficult line in the Creed. Some churches use an alternate translation, "He descended to the dead" while other churches remove the line completely. So, what does this phrase mean and how should we deal with it?

The first thing we need to remember is that the Apostles’ Creed is not a passage from the Bible. Also, it was not actually written by the Apostles, at least not in its current form. This is important to keep in mind since the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, but all other writings are man-made creations that are only as good as far as they match the Scriptures. We deeply respect many of the historical creeds and confessions, but we do not put them on the same level as inspired Scripture.

Second, the phrase “He descended to hell” is not found in any of the earliest versions of the Creed such as the “Old Roman” version. It actually does not appear until the mid-seventh century, at least not with the understanding of "hell" rather than the grave. We do have a version from the end of the 4th century by Rufinus that includes "descended into hell" but the writer specifically notes that he understands the term to simply mean that Christ was buried. The Greek term is hades, which can simply mean “grave” rather than hell. After Rufinus, we don't see the entire phrase again until the mid-seventh century.[1]  The Old Roman Creed, from the second half of the second century, simply says that Jesus was crucified, buried, and then rose from the dead.[2]

Third, and most importantly, the Bible does not teach that Jesus burned in hell to pay for our sins. Remember what Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross next to Him. Jesus told him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This thief, and Jesus, would be in Paradise that day, not hell. Luke 23:46 records Jesus saying, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” before He died. John 19:30 records Jesus saying, “It is finished,” as He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. When Jesus died on the cross, He had finished the word of atonement. He did not then spend three days burning in hell to pay for our sins. That work was finished on the cross. When Scripture discusses how Jesus paid for our sins, it consistently points to the cross (1 Cor. 1:17-18; Gal. 6:14; Eph. 2:16; Phil. 2:8; Col. 1:20; 2:14; Heb. 12:2) not to any suffering in hell.

Finally, the phrase “He descended into hell” is confusing. Many people at my church have told me that they always assumed "descended into hell" meant that Jesus burned in hell between His death and resurrection. Even the great theologians of church history have disagreed on what this phrase meant. John Calvin understood it to mean that Jesus basically experienced hell on the cross. There is a lot of truth to that interpretation. On the cross Jesus took the curse on our behalf (Gal. 3:13) and propitiated God's wrath (Rm. 3:25) for those who have their trust in Him.  However, this is not what most Christians thought "descended to hell" meant prior to Calvin. It is also not what most people would assume today unless they are taught otherwise. Also, it is not likely that Calvin's interpretation is what the phrase originally meant when it was added to the Creed. It is more likely that this phrase, in its original language, simply meant that Jesus really died and went to the “afterlife.”  Thus "descended to the grave" or “descended to the dead” probably communicate the meaning of the original terms better than "descended to hell."

If Jesus went to the underworld, it was a brief trip to liberate the Old Testament saints--leading them from Abraham's Side (Luke 16:22; Eph. 4:8-10) to heaven now that salvation had been accomplished--and possibly to proclaim His victory (1 Pt. 3:19). This view, "the harrowing of hell," was probably the most common view for most of church history. I think this possibly happened, but is this really what the phrase "descended to hell" originally meant? That seems unlikely since all the other statements in the Creed are clear, key, non-negotiable elements of the Christian faith. The harrowing of hell is obscure by comparison. On the other hand, Christ descending to the grave, or the afterlife, is a key, non-negotiable article of our faith. If this is the case, the phrase may have originally been intended to emphasize that Jesus really did die.

Some churches use a version of the Creed in which the whole line is removed. That might be the best option. But if we're going to keep the line, then in my opinion "descended to the dead" has less problems. It helps us to have one less thing to un-teach people. It also has the advantage of being the interpretation of the person who recorded the earliest known version of the Creed including that phrase. The third option would be to retain the original phrase, but explain it well and often. No matter what, we need churches that make it clear, week in and week out, that when Jesus died on the cross He fully accomplished everything required to get believers to God. Jesus took hell on the cross so we wouldn't have to take it in eternity.

[1] Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descent Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed,” JETS, 34/1 (March 1991): 103-6.
[2] O.G. Oliver, Jr., “Apostles’ Creed,” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 72. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...