He Descended into Hell—Lent Day Forty

It was in the fall of 1983 that I began to attend Westminster Seminary.  I had gone there for the specific purpose of studying Old Testament.  But the seminary, like all seminaries, very unreasonably and very stubbornly insisted that I take courses in other disciplines as well, such as church history.  One of the unnecessary courses in which I enrolled was “The Ancient Church” with Dr. Richard Gamble. It turned out to be a fascinating course, and for the major research paper, I decided to write on a topic that had always puzzled me: What is meant by the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell”?  So, one of my first seminary productions was a paper entitled, “Ancient Church Conception and Creedalization of the Descent into Hell Phrase in the Apostles’ Creed.” I actually put a great deal of labor into that paper, and I still remember the hours I spent, not only in the Westminster library, but also in the nearby Lutheran seminary library, an old stone building which had a delightfully “Reformational” atmosphere about it.  In any case, the professor returned the paper to me with a single solitary comment on it: “A (one of the few).”  I tell you this solely for the purpose of tooting my own horn.

To make a long paper short, there were several ideas prevalent in the ancient church idea of Christ’s descent into hell.  They can pretty much be narrowed down to three basic conceptions: (1) Christ’s descent to hell was for the purpose of preaching and proclamation; (2) Christ’s descent to hell was in some way a continuation of his humiliation and sufferings; and (3) Christ’s descent to hell was an act of liberation to loose the bonds of the saints who were imprisoned there.  These three streams are not rigid, and there are numerous variations of each, as well as mixtures of all three in the church fathers.

The biblical passages which were used to support the idea of the descent were numerous.  The main passages were Ephesians 4:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:18—4:6.  But some of the other passages which were referred to in support were Matthew 12:39-40; Luke 16:19-31; John 10:16; Acts 2:24-32; and Romans 10:7.

When the phrase became part of the Apostles’ Creed is hard to determine, partly because the date of the Creed itself is hard to determine.  But even though the creedalization of the phrase may not have happened till the fourth or fifth century AD, the references to Christ’s descent are numerous and much earlier.  Among the church fathers who make reference to the descent are Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Melito, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and even the heretic Marcion.

Over those first few centuries, what rises to the forefront, and what I believe ultimately accounts for the descent into hell phrase eventually becoming part of the Apostles’  Creed, is that third understanding of why Christ descended to hell—that he went there to liberate the Old Testament saints from their imprisonment in Hades.  This has been referred to as the Höllenstürmung, the “Hell-storming” conception, or, more popularly, the “Harrowing of Hell.”  Here are some representative statements from the church fathers:

Therefore it became him, that when he went to Hades, he preached to those there, who in this life, had not allowed themselves to be convinced.  On that account therefore, the doorkeepers of Hades trembled and he broke and destroyed the gates of Hades and the iron doors and bolts were broken.  (Hippolytus)

Christ, not sharing in sin, descending to the depths of Tartarus, breaking the bolts of Hades, recalled to life from the jaws of the devil souls conquered by sin, having destroyed the dominion of death.  The divine triumph is written in eternal letters when it is said, “O Death, where is thy sting?  O Death, where is thy victory?’ ” (Ambrose)

He descended into hell alone, but ascended from there with a great company; for he went down to death, and many bodies of  the saints which slept arose through him.  Death was struck with dismay on beholding a new visitant descending into Hades not bound by the chains of that place.  Wherefore, O ye porters of Hades, when ye saw him, were ye scared?  What unwanted fear seized you?  Death fled, and his flight betrayed his cowardice . . . All the just were ransomed whom death had devoured, for it behoved the King who had been heralded to become the redeemer of his noble heralds.  (Cyril of Jerusalem)

So while the ideas of Christ preaching to the spirits in prison, or even in some way continuing his sufferings in hell, contributed to the mix, it was the third idea, the “Harrowing of Hell,” which ultimately accounts for the popularity of the descent and its inclusion in the Apostles’ creed.

Perhaps sometime in the future, maybe next year’s “Holy Saturday,” I’d like to come back and look at this whole concept.  The textual, contextual, and conceptual problems are legion, and the attempt to sort through all the contextual and conceptual issues, to exegete the texts, and to construct some kind of biblical-theological picture which takes into account all of the biblical data—this is in itself a “descent” into a labyrinthine maze in which many commentators and theologians have been trapped and from which they have yet to emerge.  Perhaps at Christ’s second coming he will descend into the labyrinth and free them from their prison.  For now, the only thing I can say is that, despite all the textual problems, I believe the church fathers were on to something.  I believe, along with my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, that the texts very possibly are pointing to something like a Höllenstürmung, a Hell-storming, a Harrowing of Hell.  I, myself, have not yet done the rigorous exegetical work necessary to say “yea” or “nay.” But, at some point, I’m going to take courage and enter the maze.  Hopefully, I will also emerge.  But, for now, in solidarity with, and deference to, the saints of the ancient church, I will affirm:

He descended into hell

Jerry Shepherd
Holy Saturday
April 19, 2014