Apostles' Creed: I Believe in Jesus ChristHe Descended into Hell

Sermon by on March 9, 2003

1 Corinthians 15:1-4

The Apostles’ Creed
He Descended into Hell
I Corinthians 15:1-4

I’d invite you to turn with me to 1 Corinthians 15. We are
continuing a series that we have been pursuing on Sunday mornings on The
Apostles’ Creed. This morning we looked at the phrases that “we believe in the
Lord Jesus Christ who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and
buried.” All belong together in the Creed as part of the complex of affirmations
pointing to the same truth in the Apostles’ Creed, but tonight, we’ll especially
look at that last one “He descended into hell.” So turn with me in your Bibles
to 1 Corinthians 15 and we’ll read the first four verses.

“Now, I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I
preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also
you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you
believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also
received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He
was buried, and the He was raised on the third day according to the

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy Word. May He
write its eternal truths upon our hearts. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your Word. We
pray that You would cause it to be a lamp to our feet, a light to our paths, and
that You would grant us understanding both of the summarization of the truth of
Your word in the Apostles’ Creed and behind it an understanding of Your own
inspired Scripture. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

The phrase that we’re going to look at very briefly
tonight is without question the most controversial in the Apostles’ Creed. I
grew up in a Presbyterian Church which was first PCUS like this one, the old
Southern Presbyterian Church, and then PCA, like this one, Presbyterian Church
in America, and when we recited The Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Day after Lord’s
Day, we did not say this particular clause of the Creed. We didn’t even have an
asterisk in the bulletin saying that this means something else. We just didn’t
say it at all. I remember being a little bit shocked the first time I said
repeated this phrase in another church as a part of my affirmation of my faith.
It sounded weird, it sounded Roman Catholic, and it sounded different. It just
sounded like it shouldn’t be there. I have come to appreciate, though, the
significance of this particular clause in the Creed. In fact, I’m going to
suggest to you tonight that it is orthodox and it is helpful if you understand
what is being affirmed. I like the way you do it here. And so despite the
conundrum of sorting out its meaning, I want to look at two things with you
tonight. First, what the phrase means and second, what its significance is. Let
me root that a little bit in historical discussion and then we’ll zero in first
on the meaning of the phrase “descended into hell.”

I. Jesus’
death was complete to the point of the separation of His body and Spirit.
Let me tell you what it means first and then we’ll work back to
how it got there. The phrase means that Jesus’ death was complete to the
point of the separation of His body and Spirit
. The phrase indicates that
His Spirit departed to the realm of the dead.
That is what’s being affirmed
when we say, “He descended into hell.” As you know, there have been different
views of this over the course of Christian history. Even as the Apostles’ Creed
was coming together in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, there were
different beliefs about what it meant for Jesus to descend into Hades, or to
descend below, or to descend into hell, depending upon which arrangement of
words were used. Hades or Sheol, the collective abode of the dead,
divided into Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom –
the state of God-fearing souls – and Gehenna,
the state of ungodly souls. And so the final clause in this sequence of
“suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried, descended into hell”
is a matter of controversy even historically.

As I’ve already mentioned, some denominations
consider it optional or refuse to use it at all or stick an asterisk next to it
in their bulletins and explain it at the bottom of the page. There have been
different views on what this phrase means. Some have suggested that the phrase
“descended into hell” refers to the spiritual agony of the experience of the
wrath of God which Jesus endured on the cross. That was Calvin’s view.
Unfortunately, if you look at the order of the phrases in the Creed “suffered
under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell”
doesn’t seem to fit that kind of interpretation. That may be true. I think it
is; but I don’t think that is what the phrase in the Creed is affirming. It is
certainly true that Jesus experienced the covenant ban, the anathema of God. The
wrath of God was poured out on the cross. But that phrase of the Creed is not
designed to affirm that particular truth.

Others taught that Jesus ‘harrowed hell’ in His
descendit ad inferna
, or descent into the lower realms. That is, He went and
He released the Old Testament saints from spiritual captivity and brought them
into paradise. You can find that particular interpretation as early as the third
century in a Syrian creed. And when this particular clause of the Creed began to
catch on in the western church in the fourth and fifth centuries, that was one
of the most popular beliefs leading many to believe that’s why this clause in
the Creed was included.

Some people have suggested that Jesus’ descent into
hell was a second chance. It was a second-chance opportunity for those who had
already died apart from Christ to hear the gospel again from Him. There is
absolutely no historical suggestion of that particular view anywhere in the
history of the Creed, however. Whatever interpretation one accepts, you have to
look closely at a range of biblical passages upon which these various ideas are
based, especially 1 Peter 3:18-22. You will note I didn’t read that tonight for
a couple of reasons, but I’ll get to that later. So those are some of the
different views on the market. Your head’s already spinning.

What can this phrase not mean?
Well, it clearly can’t mean three things. It cannot mean the harrowing of
, that very popular medieval view that Jesus released the captive souls
of Old Testament saints held in prison. For one thing, that’s not what 1 Peter
3:18-22 is referring to and that view is based on that particular chapter.

It also does not mean the word of faith view.
Some of those of you who are very big fans of Christian television, and catch
Word of Faith teachers from time to time like Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland
will hear them from time to time saying things like this: “Jesus did not pay for
your sins on the cross. He paid for your sins in hell. His work on the cross did
not pay for your sins; His going to hell paid for your sins.” And they teach
that the phrase “descended into hell” literally means that Jesus spent time in
physical hell under the torment of the devil in order to die a spiritual death
and to pay for our sins which were not paid for on the cross. Now, nobody as far
as I can tell, in the history of Christianity has ever believed that except Mr.
Hagin and Mr. Copeland and their followers. Secondly, that teaching diminishes
the cross which you never find orthodox Christians doing after the cannon and
you never find a New Testament theologian doing in the cannon of Scripture. So
it can’t mean that.

It also can’t mean the second chance view that
somehow Jesus is going into the realm of the dead to preach to the people who
didn’t have a first chance. J.I. Packer says, “Peter’s words do not provide the
least warrant for that inference.” So those are some of the things that it can’t

What things does it probably not mean? Well,
it probably doesn’t mean any kind of a descent into a physical hell. You
know, the New Testament word for the physical hell of punishment and fire is
. There are other words which are associated as well and it probably
doesn’t mean that.

Furthermore, it probably doesn’t mean the modified
Protestant harrowing of hell
view that you will find in J.I. Packer and
Sinclair Ferguson and even Derek Thomas. Now, I had to get that in while Derek
was out of town because we only disagree on three things in all of life and it’s
no fun to agree all the time. That view, of course, is that Jesus made hades
into paradise and perfected Old Testament believers and declared victory over
the spiritual powers of evil. As much as I like that view, that’s probably not
what this clause means.

What does it mean? Well, it means this. Jesus
really died; He really died even to the point of experiencing just like us, soul
and body separation. We experience in death, the separation of soul and body, of
spirit and body. If you’ll look at the context of this clause in the Creed, it
makes perfect sense. Crucified, dead, buried, descended into hell or descended
into hades. You see, as we saw this morning, the Creed is driving home the
reality of the death of our Lord. He was dead, He was buried. The Creed is
emphasizing and confirming the totality and the reality of the Lord’s death and
it continues to hammer this home by saying “descended into hell.” It’s hammering
home the point that He really died.

You know, in Christian history there have been some
people who’ve said, “Whoever it was that died, it wasn’t Jesus.” And then there
have been others who’ve said, “Well, someone died but it was an apparition, it
wasn’t really Jesus.” And then others have said, “His spirit was taken to glory
before He died.” But you see, by saying “crucified, dead, buried, descended into
hell,” the Creed is saying it wasn’t an apparition. He was nailed to a post, He
died, He had a real body, a corpse, that was placed in the tomb. He wasn’t
merely unconscious. He wasn’t merely swooning from His hours on the cross. He
was truly dead to the point that His spirit left His body and went to the realm
of the dead.

The point of the Creed is that Jesus experienced
death in every sense of the word. Jesus really died in every aspect of what it
means to die including the experience of separation of body and spirit. And you
know what? That also just happens to be the view of The Westminster Larger
Do you remember question 50? “Wherein consisted Christ’s
humiliation after His death?” And the answer, “Christ’s humiliation after His
death consisted in His being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead,
and under the power of death until the third day which hath been otherwise
expressed in these words: He descended into hell.” So that’s what it means.

II. The significance of “descended into hell”
So what? What is the significance of
that? Again, that whole complex of Jesus’ death assures the forgiveness of sins
through the payment of the penalty of sin. Sin’s penalty is death and Jesus’
forgiveness of sins is assured in His payment of the fullness of that penalty of
death. And this whole complex of Jesus’ death is grounded in the work of a
sympathetic mediator. When we say that Jesus descended into hell, we are
affirming that He really died, over against all of those that deny that Jesus
experienced the fullness of death.

I mentioned this morning that our Muslim friends do
not believe that the prophet Jesus, as they venerate Him, experienced death. You
may be unfamiliar with that, but in the Koran 4:157 reads They said in boast ‘We
killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary the messenger of Allah,’ but they killed Him
not nor crucified Him but so it was made to appear to them. For those who differ
therein are full of doubts with no certain knowledge but only conjecture to
follow for of a surety they killed Him not.” Now let me just stop right there
and say, isn’t it interesting that if God’s stratagem for the forgiveness of
sins is the death of His son, isn’t it interesting that there have always been
some interested to deny that He really died? And so the significance of this
clause, of this set of phrases in the Apostles’ Creed, is to drive home the
point that Jesus experienced the fullness of death, the totality of what it
means to die in order to fully deal with the sting of death.

And because He did fully deal with the sting of
death, the Christian’s approach to death now has two aspects. For us human death
continues to be a manifestation of the curse of sin and we don’t need to candy
coat the hardnesses of death. We can look death squarely in the eye and
acknowledge the hurt, the pain, the anguish that sometimes attends death. And at
the same time, because of Christ’s death, and because His victory over death,
and because He has dealt with the sting of death which is sin, the reality of
death is also for the Christian a conquered reality. And so the Christian brings
to bear both of those truths, both of those aspects, when he thinks about death.

On the one hand, death continues to be a
manifestation of the curse against sin. On the other hand, because of Jesus’
death, it becomes a portal into glory. That which had been an unmitigated sorrow
and manifestation of the judgment of God, is now transported into the greatest
means of grace whereby God translates us into His presence.

“Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist? Christ’s
humiliation consisted in His being born, and that in a low condition, made under
the law undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, the curse-death
of the cross in being buried and continuing under the power of death for a
time.” (WSC Q.27) That’s how our Shorter Catechism interprets “suffered
under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” All of those things are
part of what Jesus has done in order to make it so that your sins have been
separated from you as far as the east is from the west, and so that you can face
death and see in that old enemy one that is now conquered and one which will be
conquered, and one which will be brought to an end because Jesus has conquered

Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word,
we thank You for the truth of the death of Jesus Christ, and we ask now that You
would enable us to face death with the reality of Jesus’ victory over it, and
experience of it clearly in our hearts, and so to face it in faith and hope,
trusting in Your good news. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


A Guide to the Evening

The Covenant College Chorale
The Covenant College Chorale from our PCA college in Lookout Mountain, Georgia,
will sing at the Evening Worship tonight. Under the direction of Dr. Ken W.
Anderson, the Chorale will sing a variety of selections in the first part of the
service. Covenant College is where our own Jed Johnston is the RUF campus

The Call to Worship
Biblical worship is always a response to God’s gracious revelation of Himself to
His people. He takes the initiative to come to us in grace and seek us out,
before we ever respond to Him. Hence, all our worship services begin with a
scriptural “call to worship” (that is, the content of the “call” comes from
God’s own word quoted and pronounced by the minister). In this “call,” we are
reminded that God always takes the initiative. He always comes toward His people
first, in grace. Our worship is a reflexive response to His gracious call.

The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual
All People That on Earth Do Dwell (Psalm 100)

One of the two best-known and well-loved psalms in our congregation is this
setting of Psalm 100 (the other is Psalm 23, sung to “Crimond”) to the glorious
tune “Old One Hundredth.” There has probably not been a year in the
160-year-plus life of this church when this psalm and tune haven’t been sung.
The tune comes right out of Calvin’s Genevan Psalter and is still in use
in every nation where there is a Reformed church. The Book of Psalms is God’s
divinely inspired hymnbook, thus we always sing psalms along with scripturally
sound hymns in all our services.

Wondrous Love Is This

This is an old hymn, dating from the famous shaped-note songbook The
Southern Harmony
(1835). If you grew up in Dixie, you probably had
grandparents who sang songs (or at least remembered hearing songs) from that
hymnal. The tune is a simple, but haunting, folk tune. The focus of the hymn is
the love of God. There are but three stanzas, and they each center on very
simple, but profound themes. Basically, the song asks us to think about, or
rather, to be lost in the glory of the love of Christ. Then it brings home two
practical applications of that love: (1) the desire to exalt the Lord for that
love, and (2) the comforting truth that we’ll sing this song forever and never
tire of it.

Note especially that in the first
stanza we ponder: what kind of love would move Christ, the Lord Christ, to die
for me? Indeed, it is a wondrous love that moved our Lord to “bear the dreadful
curse” for our souls. These words point us to reflect upon the sheer
extravagance of God’s love and grace. His love is unexpected and overwhelming
and incomparable. And the more we ponder it spiritually, the more baffling and
comforting it is. This theme fits the evening’s sermon perfectly. We’ll sing
this in response to it.

The Sermon
Tonight, in our ongoing study of the Apostles’ Creed, we tackle the perplexing
phrase “he descended into hell?” Just what exactly does that mean?! For hundreds
of years the Apostles’ Creed has served as an instrument for instructing
Christians in the basics of biblical faith. We recite it often in our public
services. But what are we affirming in each of the phrases? How do these truths
relate to our daily lives? Since the first of January, we have been engaging in
a unique survey of this ancient confession of Christian belief.

The Benediction
The Lord’s Day is the “market day of the soul” and so it is fitting that it
should conclude for all those gathered in his house with a word of blessing from
God. Dr. Duncan’s traditional evening benediction is based upon Ephesians 6:23,
Hebrews 13:21, and Song of Solomon 2:17. It pronounces God’s saving peace on all
believers, and asks for God to add to it love and faith, based upon the person
and work of Jesus Christ, until that great day when we move “out of the shadows
and into the Reality.”

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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