Dear Church Family,
Continuing in our Sunday school lessons in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), this past Sunday we covered question 50 – specifically, the meaning of the phrase “He descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed. Here is a brief review.
The WLC describes the last part of Christ’s humiliation (His humiliation, or being made low, “after his death”) as having consisted in His “being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day” (WLC 50). Thus, after His death but before His resurrection, Christ’s body remained in the tomb, but His spirit (His human reasonable soul) went to heaven or paradise. And, then this statement is added at the end of WLC 50’s answer, “which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.”
Over the years, I have found that there is much confusion about this phrase, “He descended into hell.” Hopefully, this review will provide some clarification and be of some help.
The Difference between hell (Gehenna) and hades (or sheol)
First, we begin with some definitions. These definitions are important because the word translated as “hell” in the phrase from the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” is hades, not Gehenna. So, here are the definitions of each of these words, taken directly from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
“The best known biblical image for hell derives from a deep, narrow gorge southeast of Jerusalem called ge ben hinnom, “the Valley of Ben Hinnom,” in which idolatrous Israelites offered up child sacrifices to the gods of Molech and Baal (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31-32; 19:2-6). Josiah defiled the valley to make it unacceptable as a holy site (2 Kings 23:10), after which it was used as a garbage dump by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. As a result, the Valley of Ben Hinnom became known as the dump heap, the place of destruction by fire in Jewish tradition. The Greek word gehenna, “hell,” commonly used in the NT for the place of final punishment, is derived from the Hebrew name for this valley.” (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Sowners Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 376.)
“The grave conjures up many kinds of images, most of them negative. In its most concrete expression the grave is simply a tomb or place of burial (Gen 35:20; Mk 16:3). Often, however, imagery of the grave as the abode of the dead is evoked. sheol (Heb) and Hades (Gk) represent the lowest place imaginable in contrast to the highest heavens (Is 7:11; Mt 11:23). The grave does not simply represent a termination of life but points beyond it to a place where two irreconcilable destinies coexist.” (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Sowners Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 349.)
In Old Testament, it is clear that the Hebrew term “sheol” is to be understood simply as “the state of death” or “the grave” when one examines the parallelism of the poetry (e.g., Psalm 6:5; 89:49; Proverbs 7:27). Further, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “sheol,” is translated using the Greek word “hades” (see, for example, Peter’s quoting of Psalm 16:10 in Acts 2:27) .
Another good resource to better understand these definitions, as well as the Biblical understanding of the broader topic of the intermediate state (discussed below), is Herman Hoeksema’s pamphlet entitled, “The Intermediate State.”
The Intermediate State
Simply put, the intermediate state refers to the disembodied existence of all people after they die, but before the resurrection of our bodies (at Christ’s return). The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the teaching of Scripture on this point in chapter 32, paragraph 1:
“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect of holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.”
That last sentence is added, no doubt, due to some of the erroneous teachings of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that arose during the Middle Ages. Let’s consider three of them: purgatory, the Limbus Patrum, and the Limbus Infantum.
According to the RCC, purgatory is not a place of punishment, but a place for final sanctification – a place where the faithful bear the temporal punishments for their sins: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 12.III, 1030). Drawing on the inter-Testamental writings of the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 12:42-45), the idea of purgatory is what gave rise to the selling of ‘indulgences’ which Martin Luther famously inveighed against; by giving money to the church, a person could supposedly reduce or eliminate the time that their loved ones would spend in purgatory.
The doctrine of purgatory finds no warrant in Scripture. And, what’s more, it is based on several faulty premises: that we must add our work (or suffering) to that of Christ; that our good works can actually be meritorious; that the Church can actually remit sins in an absolute judicial sense.
According to the RCC, the Limbus Patrum, is the supposed place where “the souls of the Old Testament saints were detained in a state or expectation until the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. After His death on the cross Christ is supposed to have descended into the abode of the fathers, to release them from their temporary confinement and to carry them in triumph to heaven. This is the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christ’s descent into hades.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 687).
The Limbus Infantum is the supposed place where all unbaptized children go after death to spend eternity. The idea is that unbaptized children cannot be admitted to heaven, so they are consigned to a place on the outskirts of hell. This is what limbus refers to. The Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum are two supposed places that are on the fringe or outskirts of hell. In both instances of the word in these two supposed places, the limbus is neither heaven nor hell.
“He descended into hell”
As noted above in the quotation from Berkhof, the teaching that Christ “descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed has been combined with the idea of the Limbus Patrum. In this line of thinking, according to the RCC, the idea is that the Old Testament saints were kept in a ‘holding place’ (sometimes referred to as “Abraham’s bosom,” cf. Luke 16:23) from which Christ delivered them at the time of His death and resurrection. John Calvin referred to this notion as a fable, and a childish one at that (Institutes, II.16.9). Unfortunately, however, this Roman Catholic teaching is believed and taught by some Protestant evangelicals today (e.g., John MacArthur, Al Mohler).
In both the Old Testament (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7) and the New Testament (e.g. Philippians 1:21-26), we are taught that the souls of believers immediately enter into the presence of the Lord. This is why, the paragraph quoted above from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 32.1) concludes with this statement: “Beside these two places [the highest heavens and hell], for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.”
So what do we mean when we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that the Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “descended into hell”? Well, the Reformed Catechisms actually give us two options. Consider the two different ways in which the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) understand this phrase:
WLC 50 Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
Answer: Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
HC 44 Why is there added, “he descended into hell?”
Answer: That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
Far from teaching that Christ set the Old Testament saints free from a kind of limbo or that His spirit actually went to the place of eternal punishment, these Biblical understandings Christ’s “descent into hell” give us great assurance and comfort as believers. Whether one understands “He descended into hell” to be a reference to Christ occupying the state of death (WLC) or experiencing the torments of hell (HC), His work was meritorious on our behalf. Christ experienced the penalty of death and all the torments of hell on our behalf. For a brief explanation of this from Guy Waters of Reformed Theological Seminary, see this four-minute video.
Thus, our understanding of the humiliation of Christ – including the time after His death in the grave – is a doctrine and an understanding of the powerful, gracious, and substitutionary work of our Savior. It ought to cause us to praise and thank Him, to bless and extol His name, to look forward to when we will see Him in glory, and to long for the resurrection of our bodies at His second coming!
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch