The Second Article of the Apostle’s Creed reads as follows: (I believe) “in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
When I had barely emerged from my infancy, I had an altogether wrong conception of the meaning of the phrase: “He descended into hell.” In the following article, I shall attempt to present what the Holy Scriptures teach about this event in the life of Christ.
In case anyone is laboring under the same misconception that I had in my early childhood, I shall say at the outset that Christ did not go to hell to undergo further suffering for our sins. This He accomplished when He was nailed to the cross. Shortly before He died, He said: “It is finished.” (John 19: 30) His work of redemption had been completed, and His suffering had also come to an end. He did not have to undergo further torments in hell.
The purpose of the descent into hell is expressed in I Peter 3: 19: “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.”
In the previous two verses, Peter had spoken of the sufferings and death of Christ, and concluded with a reference to His quickening, which means His returning to life. Then in the verse cited, Peter speaks of a journey that Christ made. The Greek circumstantial participle, which the English translation converts into the finite verb “he went,” often applies to travel. In this case, however, I believe the journey was instantaneous, in view of the omnipresence of Jesus, in which his human nature now fully participated, since He had entered His state of exultation.
What was the destination of Christ’s journey? It obviously was hell, since that is where the spirits in prison resided. And why did He go there? The English translation says that he wanted to preach to these spirits. The Greek word translated “preach” refers to some kind of proclamation, such as a herald makes when a monarch sends him on a mission. This same verb often refers to the proclamation of the gospel, which we call preaching. In the passage cited, Jesus is proclaiming His victory over the forces of evil. Jesus is telling the evil spirits in hell that they have been completely defeated and that their power over mankind has been terminated because of His redemptive work on the cross. His journey to hell was a victory procession, something like the march of a victorious army through the streets of the capital city of a conquered enemy.
Did Christ deliver the souls of Old Testament believers from limbo when He descended into hell? According to the theory, Old Testament believers could not enter heaven until Christ saved the world from sin; so they were consigned to limbo when they died. An excellent poetic treatment of this theory occurs in Canto IV of the Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy.” Virgil tells Dante that not long after he had entered limbo (in the first circle of hell), a Mighty One came and took away a great number of people, such as Abel, Noah, and Abraham.
I do not believe this theory for the following reason. When Jesus was still on the cross, He told the repentant thief: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23: 43) If believers had to wait in limbo until Jesus descended into hell, the thief would not be with Jesus in paradise on Good Friday, the day on which both of them died. Instead, he would have had to wait in limbo till Jesus came to fetch him and others after He was quickened on Easter Sunday.
Note: I do not believe that Matthew 27: 52-53 has any connection with Christ’s descent into hell.