Descending Dissent

This is part eleven of a series of twelve newsletter articles written by Rev. Neil L. Carlson for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rev. Carlson is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Zion Lutheran Church in Sidney and Chappell, Nebraska.

We confess of the Son in the Apostles’ Creed that “He descended into hell.” This teaching isn’t an invention of the apostles or of the Church. It is taught in Scripture. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:18-20a ESV). Therefore, Christ’s descent into hell isn’t some type of insignificant doctrine that can be believed or rejected, at will, with no harm. Rather, it must be understood correctly and believed as Scripture rightly teaches.

The controversy concerning Christ’s descent into hell may not have been very controversial at the time of The Reformation. It was one of the lesser issues of the day, but that doesn’t mean it has no importance in the Church. This controversy has two main issues: the mode of Christ’s descent and the purpose of Christ’s descent.

“(John) Aepinus taught that Christ’s descent is part of His suffering and atonement. While the body was lying in the grave, His soul descended into hell in order to suffer the qualms and pangs required to satisfy the wrath of God, complete the work of redemption, and render a plenary satisfaction.”[1] “To Calvin and the Reformed generally the descent into hell is but a figurative expression for the suffering of Christ, particularly of His soul.”[2] Here one can see where both issues overlap. First, the mode of Christ’s descent: “Luther explained: After His burial, the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell.”[3] Theologically, this is an extremely important point. If Christ descended not as the God-man but only spiritually, then logically, The Resurrection would have been spiritual as well. Christ’s descent was as the whole Christ, not divided in substance, but united in the two natures that comprise the one Christ—both God and man. He descended in body and spirit and was raised in body and spirit. The Formula of Concord quotes one of Luther’s sermons saying, “We simply believe that the entire person, God and man after the burial, descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell and took from the devil all his might.”[4]

This issue leads to a correct or false understanding of the purpose of Christ’s descent. If one believes the words of our Lord, “It is finished” (John 19:30), then the Reformed view must be rejected. Christ, who died in body and spirit upon the cross, made the statement that the sins of the world had been atoned for, that his suffering was complete, and the salvation of mankind was finished. Thus, Christ’s descent into hell can’t be part of his suffering or his atonement. If it was, Christ couldn’t have proclaimed, “It is finished.” Unless “it” doesn’t refer to the atonement, but then the entire purpose of the cross is lost, so that certainly can’t be.

“Lutheran theology has regarded the Descent of Christ as the beginning of the state of exaltation of the human nature of the God-man.”[5] Again, Luther explained, “After His burial, the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell and Satan.”[6] In Christ’s state of humiliation (which consists of His incarnation, suffering, and death), Christ was in the flesh, suffering to fulfill the Law and atone for the sins of man. His humiliation ended with His death, just as Jesus said, “It is finished.” After it was finished, Christ descended into hell as St. Peter writes. He descended to proclaim His triumphal victory over sin, death, and the devil. It is most interesting that the first Easter sermon was preached on the day of The Resurrection to those in hell. Nevertheless, Christ preached His victory in hell. Think of it as a victory lap showing His enemy that He had conquered all.  The descent into hell is, properly speaking, Christ’s first act of exultation; it occurred even before The Resurrection.

Properly understanding Christ’s descent into hell assists with properly understanding Christ’s death on the cross and also the significant impact of His Resurrection. Jesus’ death defeated death. The sermon in hell proclaims death has been destroyed and the devil has been conquered. All of which is proved by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

“He descended into hell” isn’t some line that can be removed from the Creed. It is proclaimed by the Scriptures and must be proclaimed by the Church. Though the descent into hell sounds like pain and suffering, it is the opposite. It is victory and triumph. Just as Christ suffered as full God and man, so He triumphed as full God and man, and so He rose as full God and man.

Even though this controversy may be over (in the Lutheran church anyway) it is beneficial for us to have a right understanding of Christ’s descent, especially as we confess it in the Creed. Now when you confess, “He descended into hell,” you will do so with joy in your heart knowing that it is a proclamation of victory over sin, death, and the devil.

[1] F. Bente, Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions. Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 451.

[2] Bente, 449.

[3] Bente, 449.

[4] Formula of Concord, Art. IX, para. 2.

[5] Bente, 455.

[6] Bente, 449.

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