If your church has ever recited the Apostles’ Creed, you’re probably familiar with that awkward feeling you get when you come to the part that says “He descended into hell.” All sorts of questions come to mind. Questions like: What does that even mean? Does the Bible teach it? If so, where? Doesn’t Luke explicitly say that Jesus went to Paradise? Why would Christ descend into hell? Does this mean hell is somehow underground? Did he suffer there?” And so on.
I’ve never been sure how to answer this question. Most of the theologians whom I respect seem to follow the view of John Calvin (i.e. that the descent into hell occurred figuratively on the cross, where God’s wrath was poured out upon him), and they explain the traditional proof-texts for the descent much the same way Wayne Grudem does in his article “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for For Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed.”
Enter Justin Bass and The Battle for the Keys. I discovered this book during Easter weekend 2017, and immediately knew that I needed to read it if I was going to understand what the words “He descended into hell” meant. The book appears to be Bass’s doctoral dissertation for Dallas Theological Seminary. The full title is The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld. Revelation 1:18 records Jesus saying “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
In case you’re wondering, here’s how Bass would answer the questions above:
- What does that phrase in the Creed mean? It means Christ descended into the underworld, the place of the dead.
- Does the Bible teach it? Yes.
- If so, where? Acts 2:27, 31; Rom. 10:6-7; Matt. 12: 40; Eph. 4:8-10, cf. Phil. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Rev. 1:18.
- But doesn’t Luke explicitly say that Jesus went to Paradise? Yes, but comparing Luke 23: 43 with Acts 2:27,31 and Luke 16: 19-31, it makes more sense to conclude that Luke viewed Paradise as part of Hades. Like Josephus and other Jewish contemporaries, Luke/Jesus viewed the underworld as having two compartments, one for the righteous and one for the wicked.
- Does this mean hell is in some sense underground? In some sense, yes. The Bible pictures a three-tier universe of 1) earth 2) with heaven above and 3) hell beneath (see Phil. 2:10). But bear in mind that hell is not a physical place filled with physical bodies; rather, it’s populated with spirits, human and demonic. In short, no one is saying that you could find hell if only you had a good enough seismometer.
- Why would Christ descend into hell? Did he suffer there? Absolutely not. Rather, he descended to the underworld because he was dead, and that is where all the dead had gone till then (both righteous and wicked). And he went there in order to proclaim the good news to the Old Testament saints, to release the Old Testament saints from Sheol/Hades, to proclaim victory over the powers of evil ,and to take the keys of death and Hades.
Do I agree with all of the above points? At this point, it’s too soon to say. I’m still working on it. But I will say that Bass makes a compelling case–more compelling than I expected–and I would commend his book to your consideration.
Meanwhile, here are your five quotes.
I would like to define from the outset what I mean by…the doctrine of Christ’s descent…I believe I am in line with the New Testament and the first few centuries of the church, when I define this doctrine as the belief that Jesus Christ, between his death and resurrection, by means of his soul, descended into the underworld in triumph for purposes that at least in the New Testament [hereafter NT], are open for debate. In the second century, the threefold purpose of Christ’s journey into the underworld are already defined as a preaching tour, releasing the saints of the Old Testament, and a triumphant defeat of Death and Hades. It is the third purpose that I believe is in the background of Revelation 1:18 and the primary thesis of this book… (2)
To be clear, beginning with Ignatius and moving into the Middle Ages, there were widely diverse beliefs on what Christ accomplished at his descent, but that Christ descended in his soul to the underworld there was ‘universal consent.’ I believe this ancient and widespread teaching…is very important for the interpretation of the NT and specifically for Rev. 1:18. Many of the Apostolic Fathers and writers such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Melito, and others wrote within the era of the book of Revelation (A.D. 96) or one or two generations removed from that era…This creates a strong historical argument, since they are from the same cultural milieu as the audience (and author) of Revelation…On the other hand, this historical argument does not conclusively prove that the Descent is taught in Rev. 1:18 or anywhere else in the NT. However, it…places a significant burden of proof on writers such as Martin Bucer so far removed from this worldview who would deny that this doctrine is found in Scripture (when everyone found it there before him!). What other Christian doctrine was universally believed by the church for fifteen centuries and now is rejected by Christians today? (2-3)
Luke presents Jesus on Good Friday entering into Paradise (Luke 23:43)…but Luke also presents Peter saying that Christ’s soul dwelt in Hades between his death and resurrection (Acts 2:27, 31). Luke also says that “David did not ascend to heaven” (Acts 2:34), and Abraham and righteous Lazarus are seen dwelling in the underworld (Luke 16:19-31). A way to solve the dilemma of Christ being both in Paradise and Hades on Good Friday is if Paradise for Luke was the abode of the righteous in the underworld. Luke and Josephus were contemporary writers and come from the same religious milieu in Jerusalem. Therefore it should not be forgotten that Josephus believed in good and bad compartments in the underworld (Antiquities 18:14-15), and it would reasonable that Luke did as well. (55-56)
[When quoting Romans 10:7 from the Greek LXX], Paul actually changes the Greek word from “sea” (thalassa) to the more theologically loaded term “the netherworld” (abyss)…
[But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). (Romans 10:6–7 ESV)
…Since most would agree that Paul believed in a literal ascension to heaven…it should follow that Paul also believed in a literal (not hypothetical) descent of Christ into the abyss. I believe Acts 2:27, 31 and Romans 10:7 are the two strongest passages to be reckoned with if one believes that the doctrine of Christ’s descent is not taught in the the NT. It is very difficult to read these passages in any other way. It is true that neither of these passages says anything about Christ’s activity in the netherworld or the purpose for the this journey. However, if it is granted that they do teach his descent, then it gives more weight to [this] option in other controversial passages that may be teaching the purpose and the activity of Christ in the underworld [e.g. Eph. 4:8-10; 1 Pet. 3:18-22] (76-77)
The founding Reformers such as Luther preached on the [Descent]. The Formula of Concord says “We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” In addition, Erasmus, Henry VIII, Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, Bullinger, Peter Martyr, the church of England all affirmed and taught the [Descent]. Calvin is the first to understand the phrase metaphorically for Christ experiencing (descending into) hell on the cross before his burial instead of after his burial, but Calvin is still affirming that the [Descent] is taught in Scripture. This view is untenable, however, because of the logical order of the Creed (“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell”). This understanding of Christ’s descent seems to be sourced solely in Calvin’s ingenuity.
Thus far it seems that Zwingli’s Zurich collegue Leo Jud (1482-1542)…and Martin Bucer (1491-1542) were the first to argue that the [Descent] meant merely that Christ descended to the grave (burial) and thus rejecting this doctrine of a literal descent after fifteen centuries of the church affirming it…To equate the [Descent] with Christ’s burial was nothing more than a pre-Bultamannian attempt to demythologize the NT text because Bucer and those who followed him could no longer accept an underworld beneath the earth.” (17-18)
[As a bonus, Bass ends the book with a quote from Charles Spurgeon’s sermon “The Destroyer Destroyed.”
“How brief was the Satanic triumph! He died, and “It is finished!” shook the gates of hell. Down from the cross the conqueror leaped, pursued the fiend with thunder-bolts of wrath; swift to the shades of hell the fiend did fly, and swift descending went the conqueror after him; and we may conceive him exclaiming—
“Traitor! this bolt shall find and pierce thee through,
Though under hell’s profoundest wave thou div’st,
To find a sheltering grave.”
And seize him he did—chained him to his chariot wheel; dragged him up the steps of glory; angels shouting all the while, “He hath led captivity captive, and received gifts for men.” Now, devil, thou saidst thou wouldst overcome me, when I came to die. Satan I defy thee, and laugh thee to scorn! My Master overcame thee, and I shall overcome thee yet.”