A Laymen’s Commentary on the Epitome of the Formula of Concord: The Descent of Christ to Hell

IX. The Descent of Christ into Hell

STATUS CONTROVERSIAE.

Chief Controversy concerning This Article.

1 It has also been disputed among some theologians who have subscribed to the Augsburg Confession concerning this article: When and in what manner the Lord Christ, according to our simple Christian faith, descended to hell: whether this was done before or after His death; also, whether it occurred according to the soul alone, or according to the divinity alone, or with body and soul, spiritually or bodily; also, whether this article belongs to the passion or to the glorious victory and triumph of Christ.

2 But since this article, as also the preceding, cannot be comprehended by the senses or by our reason, but must be grasped by faith alone, it is our unanimous opinion that there should be no disputation concerning it, but that it should be believed

3 and taught only in the simplest manner; according as Dr. Luther, of blessed memory, in his sermon at Torgau in the year 1533 has explained this article in an altogether Christian manner, separated from it all useless, unnecessary questions, and admonished all godly Christians to Christian simplicity of faith.

4 For it is sufficient that we know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and the jaws of hell. But how this occurred we should [not curiously investigate, but] reserve until the other world, where not only this point [mystery], but also still others will be revealed, which we here simply believe, and cannot comprehend with our blind reason.

This controversy over the descent into Hell originated with John Aepinus who was a Lutheran pastor in Hamburg.  He taught that the descent into Hell was part of Christ’s suffering and humiliation. That it was only at His Resurrection that He began His triumph.

Scripture does not contain much regarding the descent into Hell.  There is one direct reference to it in 1 Peter 3:8-4:11 Then there may be oblique references to it in Ephesians 4:1-16 and Colossians 2:6-15. Other than that we know nothing. 

That said we can answer the question of whether the descent to Hell is part of Christ’s suffering. When Christ says “It is finished.” on the cross His full work of atonement is complete (John 19:28-30).  Thus at this point Christ’s suffering is complete.  As such His descent into hell is part of His triumph, as the Solid Declaration says:

1 And since even in the ancient Christian teachers of the Church, as well as in some among our teachers, dissimilar explanations of the article concerning the descent of Christ to hell are found, we abide in like manner by the simplicity of our Christian faith [comprised in the Creed], to which Dr. Luther in his sermon, which was delivered in the castle at Torgau in the year 1533, concerning the descent of Christ to hell, has pointed us, where we confess: I believe in the Lord Christ, God’s Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; 2 and 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.3 We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and acute thoughts as to how this occurred; for with our reason and our five senses this article can be comprehended as little as the preceding one, how Christ is placed at the right hand of the almighty power and majesty of God; but we are simply to believe it and adhere to the Word [in such mysteries of faith]. Thus we retain the substance [sound doctrine] and [true] consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article IX

Beyond that we don’t know anything, nor should we speculate.  Rather we should simply trust and confess as the Creed simply says, “He descended into hell.”

1 Christ is the world’s Redeemer,
The lover of the pure,
The font of heav’nly wisdom,
Our trust and hope secure,
The armor of His soldiers,
The Lord of earth and sky,
Our health while we are living,
Our life when we shall die.

2 Christ has our host surrounded
With clouds of martyrs bright,
Who wave their palms in triumph
And fire us for the fight.
This Christ the cross ascended
To save a world undone
And, suff’ring for the sinful,
Our full redemption won.

3 Down in the realm of darkness
He strode in victory,
And at the hour appointed
He rose triumphantly.
And now, to heav’n ascended,
He sits upon the throne
Whence He had ne’er departed,
His Father’s and His own.

4 Glory to God the Father,
The unbegotten One,
All honor be to Jesus,
His sole begotten Son,
And to the Holy Spirit–
The perfect Trinity.
Let all the worlds give answer:
Amen! So let it be.

(LSB 539)

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