The backdoor, where people exit the sanctuary into the hallway (foyer) and then into the parking lot, is becoming quite interesting for me. I am a pastor and at the end of our worship time on Sundays, stand at the backdoor and greet each person who has come to worship that day. It does not present the opportunity for lengthy conversations, but it gives me a chance to touch our church family. I have my role in the family and a crucial part for me is to be connected as much as possible to everyone.
So there I stood, at my backdoor post, and one of our faithful members said, “A visitor just asked me a question: does the pastor believe Hell is a place?” Then she looked at me expectantly. I was to give an answer she would relay to the visitor. I immediately thought this visitor wants a “right answer.” But, I don’t know what that is. Even if I did, I would have to give my honest answer, not what she thought was the “right” answer. If she did not come back because of disagreement over my views of Hell, so be it. I have to say what I truly feel.
What bothered me that day was my own lack of certainty. I was not 100% sure what I believed. That took me and our church down the road of a 7-part sermon series on the Afterlife. Now, we are several weeks in, past the ‘Hell discussions,’ and it happened at the back door again!
One of our elders said, “I was really hoping you’d talk about the creed where it says, “And he descended into Hell.” He smiled and I smiled. He is a man full of grace and if I just leave this alone, I know he’ll leave me alone. But I have come to believe God is speaking to me through these backdoor conversations.
Our church does not say the creeds and I am so unfamiliar with the Apostle’s Creed that I could not recite it from memory. But I was already aware of that line. I had been asked about it before, years earlier in my work as a pastor. I really did not know either when I was asked in previous years, or this past Sunday. On the face of it, it does not make sense to me that Jesus, sinless as He was and victorious over death, would have descended to Hell. But, things are not true based on whether or not they make sense to me. Did Jesus descend to Hell as the creed states?
It is important to note that as powerful as the creed is, for Protestants, it is post-canonical. This means it is not on the same level of power or authority as scripture. One can read and pose the question, does this in any conflict with the Bible? This is a legitimate exercise.
The results of an internet search are varied. As with any Google search, there is a lot of material out there, but I did find an article in a source I trust – Christianity Today magazine. The author is Millard Erickson, theology professor at Truett Theological Seminary. [i]
Erickson reviews several possible interpretations of the line “he descended into Hell.” First, it may simply be a way of stating Jesus was fully dead. According to the cosmology of the day, Hell was literally in the earth or “under” the earth. If Jesus was buried, where else would He be but in Hell? Erickson says this view seems to be supported by Acts 2:31. This view is along the lines of thought offered by Luke Timothy Johnson in his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (2003).[ii]
Another view described by Erickson is that the descent comes in the pre-incarnate form of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus, speaking through the prophets, specifically Noah. Erickson cites 1 Peter 1:11 for support. There it says His spirit was in the prophets. And 1 Peter 3:18-20 indicates that Jesus “went and preached to spirits in prison” and these were those who were “disobedient in the days of Noah” (3:20).
Thus from Erickson, two views stand out. That Jesus “descended” simply means he was fully dead; or, he went to the world of the dead, referred to as “Hell,” in order to preach. Does this allow for post-death conversation and salvation? Not necessarily as there are numerous nuanced explanations for what it means that Jesus descended. Besides that, Erickson and other sites refer to many other possibilities for what it could mean to say Jesus descended to Hell. One suggests his time in Hell is his time of suffering. Only in this was can he take the place of sinners in death.[iii]
In addition to the references from Acts and 1st Peter and the allusion to Noah, other Bible passages sought out in this conversation include Luke 16:19-31; Philippians 2:5-11; Ephesians 4:8-10; and readings from Job and the Psalms. But, there is no uniformity of thought. And to take any of these passages or any combination of these to reach conclusions requires several hermeneutic steps. It is a worthwhile process, but for me it is unresolved.
I believe that the lack of a unifying theme means there are realities we will not know this side of Heaven and we may never know. I do not think that because the Apostle’s Creed states “He descended into Hell,” we can conclude Jesus spent time in a fiery abyss being tortured either by God or by Satan. Nothing in the Bible indicates that narrative. However, nothing in the Bible completely rules it out either. The fact that the Bible clearly indicates that Jesus claimed victory over death to me rules against the thought of Jesus in some kind of Hell.
The Creed is an ancient one. Even the English translation is quite old. To say “Hell” does not mean what we mean when we say “Hell.” Our study of Hell has been of a future punishment. Whatever Jesus experienced on the day of crucifixion and until his resurrection, it is not akin to a future punishment for sin. Thus, whatever the Creed means to say, I cannot affirm that Jesus suffered helplessly in Hell. In all places, He is Lord. Demons cower before Him.
I am happy to state that the Bible does not point us toward speculation. Rather, the Bible assures us that if we are in Christ then we will become new creations and together, we stand on Judgment Day as the church, the spotless bride of Christ. We face an eternity with him. Hell is something we’ll never experience. Even though this conversation is not about that, it is a fitting last word.