There is a universal acceptance of the above statement as part of the Apostles’ Creed. Interpretation of what it means that the crucified Christ descended into hell is far from universally understood. There are many people who can’t comprehend that Christ descended into hell.
The first part of the confusion is our understanding of hell. The word hell today is almost exclusively understood as the place of eternal judgment. This is not at all biblical. The Greek word that was used in the Creed is katōtatos. In Latin it is inferna. Both words come from Ephesians 4.
“Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?”Ephesians 4:8–9, ESV
The translation “lower regions” captures the thought well. A corresponding word in the New Testament is Hades. This is not a place of judgment or punishment. It is the place, in Jewish thought of the time, where those who died went to await whatever comes next. For Paul, Jesus was crucified and was truly dead. For him, this was demonstrated by the fact that he, like all others, descended into Hades.
But the descent of Christ is not the crucial point. He had to descend in order to “ascend on high.” Furthermore, the ascent of Christ was the time that “he led a host of captives,” those who had died and gone to Hades but had lived by faith and were thus declared righteous. Why could they not have ascended on their own? Because Christ Jesus had not yet paid the penalty for their sin. In Romans 5, Paul makes very clear that we are justified not only by Christ’s blood (his death) but also by his life (his resurrection).
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”Romans 5:6–10, ESV
The conclusion I draw, then, is that those who die in Christ now join those who were led forth from Hades awaiting the final resurrection. That is the resurrection from corruptible to incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15). The gospel hymn by J. Wilbur Chapman puts it altogether in the chorus:
"Living, He loved me; Dying, He saved me; Buried, He carried my sins far away; Rising, He justified freely forever; One day He's coming - O glorious day!
Thus, as Paul says in Ephesians, Jesus’ descent into Hades is a significant event for anyone who would believe. Descending to Hades links the death of Christ with his resurrection, a link that is not made any other way. It is a link from forgiveness to reconciliation, both of which are parts of our salvation in Christ.
Just to add a personal thought. I have attended many schools in training for the ministry. My journey has covered many decades. Upon reflection, having taken many courses on evangelism, none of them have taught the gospel message that is the “power of God unto salvation,” (Romans 1:18). There has been a lot of methodology, philosophy, analyzation, but I guess it was just assumed that we all knew what salvation was about. In the old days, we were given method books, such as Evangelism Explosion, or tracts like “The Roman Road.” Later it became church transformation to become “seeker sensitive,” and getting to know “Unchurched Harry or Mary.” Then there came the attempt to help people find their purpose.
However, though many of these systems brought people into the church, they really did nothing to “make disciples, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded,” (Matthew 28). Looking back on my years in ministry, I know there have been lives touched, comforted, encouraged, both believer and unbeliever. Though I cannot see it now, I cannot say that I have led anyone into a deeper desire to study God’s Word and to make obedience to it the integral part of their life. I think that the Western Church has descended into the lower parts of the faith and gotten quite comfortable there.
I have been told after a service, “Good sermon, Pastor.” I don’t know in what way it was judged to be good. Church on Sunday morning has become just one of many things to do, but probably not as important as youth soccer of professional football. Please don’t misunderstand me. For me, to miss church on Sunday morning is like fasting for a week. I experience emptiness an a longing for fellowship with Christ that can only be found in the gathering of his body. On-line church doesn’t cut it either. It is just another way to fit church into our schedule which by definition makes church a secondary value.
This month I am retiring from pastoring. I can’t say that I am retiring from ministry. God help me, that shall never end. But I leave longing for a place where the music instructs, challenges, chastises, and laments. I love “rock” music. But church music has become what I used to call elevator music. It is bland, unoffensive, and many times theologically misleading if not heretical. Church is often designed to be entertaining, though if that word is used to describe it one might well find themselves outside the church rather than in it.
I long for a richer understanding of the sacraments, one that restores their sacred nature and redeems them from the realm of that which is optional. I am not claiming any particular theological position, though I would love that discussion. I am saying that they have lost their role as the centerpiece of worship. I know that there are traditions that continue to take the Supper weekly, but I believe they are significantly out numbered by those that think once a month is good enough, or those that do it occasionally or not at all. What is more central to the gospel than the Eucharist?
In short, our world is in serious trouble. I believe it is because we have replaced the presence of God, the washing of the Word, and the power of the Spirit with our own desires and pleasures. I have seen individuals and families that have gotten bored of the same old programs, who cannot understand why their young men and women can’t stand hanging around a service that is meaningless to them because they have always had their own place to go during that time instead of sitting with mom and dad in those padded seats that have replaced old fashioned pews.
And example of that which I am speaking is the ease with which church after church closed their doors on the word of a non-elected bully of a doctor who helped create the disease that has us all doing unnatural things for a long time now. “But I get a lot out of our on-line worship and the messages.” Exactly! You get but you do not give and the very definition of worship is gathering as Christ’s body giving all glory to God in the highest.
My rant began with the failure of knowing, teaching, focusing, and living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Never was I ever told that the gospel is faithfully laid out for us and summarized in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. But there it is. And in the end, it has been no one’s fault but my own, for I became happy reading those books that confirmed what I believed, the books that made me feel warm and fuzzy, the books that made no challenging expectations on my time or mental effort. God forgive me for being the kind of Christian I so hate, a lazy Christian. I hate the lazy Christian not because I hate any individual person, except the laziest of all, me.
Thank God that he descended into hell in order to lift me up. Lord, can’t you lift me a bit more quickly?