By Chaplain Mike
He descended into hell.
Today, we present several readings related to this most controversial article of the Apostles’ Creed, which expresses words appropriate for this Holy Saturday. I encourage you to contemplate these perspectives and discuss your understanding of this article of the faith from your own tradition and study.
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
• Luke 23:43 (NASB)
Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, ‘He ascended’ — what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)
• Ephesians 4:8-10 (NKJV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.
• 1Peter 3:18-22 (NKJV)
For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
• 1Peter 4:6 (NASB)
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions“.
It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!
It took earth and encountered Î—eaven!
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what can not seen!
• St. John Chrysostom, Paschal Homily
Today Hades tearfully sighs: “Would that I had not received him who was born of Mary, for he came to me and destroyed my power; he broke my bronze gates, and being God, delivered the souls I had been holding captive.”
O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!
Today Hades groans: “My power has vanished. I received one who died as mortals die, but I could not hold him; with him and through him I lost those over which I had ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began, and lo, he raises them all up with him!”
O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!
• Holy Saturday Orthodox Liturgy
A Triddum Sourcebook, p. 66
Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”
• Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday
In The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
And having harrowed hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win…
• Edmund Spenser
While according to medieval theologians the descent into hell was regarded as an act by which Christ, with His soul only, entered the abode of the dead; and while according to Calvin and the Reformed generally the descent into hell is but a figurative expression for the sufferings of Christ, particularly of His soul, on the cross, Luther, especially in a sermon delivered 1533 at Torgau, taught in accordance with the Scriptures that Christ the God-man,body and soul, descended into hell as Victor over Satan and his host.With special reference to Ps. 16, 10 and Acts 2, 24. 27, Luther explained: After His burial the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, and destroyed the power of hell and Satan. The mode and manner, however, in which this was done can no more be comprehended by human reason than His sitting at the right hand of the Father, and must therefore not be investigated, but believed and accepted in simple faith. It is sufficient if we retain the consolation that neither hell nor devil are any longer able to harm us. Accordingly, Luther did not regard the descent into hell as an act belonging to the state of humiliation, by which He paid the penalty for our sins, but as an act of exaltation, in which Christ, as it were, plucked for us the fruits of His sufferings which were finished when He died upon the cross.
• The Book of Concord
Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions, F. Bente
But, apart from the Creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the “chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” that he “was bruised for our iniquities” that he “bore our infirmities;” expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them, the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him. Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price — that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.
In this sense, Peter says that God raised up Christ, “having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible he should be holden of it,” (Acts 2:24). He does not mention death simply, but says that the Son of God endured the pains produced by the curse and wrath of God, the source of death.
• John Calvin, Institutes II, 16:10-11
Why is there added, “he descended into hell”?
That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings,but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
• The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44
The descent of Jesus into hell is, in this view, an expression of God’s universal will for salvation and a part of his cosmic victory, so that every tongue, even those “under the earth,” should proclaim that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10). In terms of the movement of the creed, the burial represents the nadir of downward descent, the ultimate expression of Jesus’ sharing in the human condition, even to the depositing of the flesh in the soil like a seed (John 12:24; see 1Cor. 15:35-41).
• Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, p. 175
An excellent lecture by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, reviewing the Eastern and Western traditions at the orthodox blog, Glory to God for All Things.
A series of posts reviewing Archbishop Alfeyev’s book, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective, by Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed.