Article III: Of the going down of Christ into hell

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

number 3Article III: Of the going down of Christ into hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed that He went down into Hell.

This one will be tough for lots of people. Plenty of Christians don’t even believe in hell these days, and they certainly don’t give much thought to Christ’s descent into Satan’s hood. It’s a pretty ancient idea though, with solid scriptural warrant. Check out 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6. The idea is that Christ, while he was dead, proclaimed the Gospel to the dead and rescued them from Satan’s grasp.

People who say the daily office will know this teaching from the Apostles’ Creed. This Article comes almost straight from the Elizabethan version (Rite I in the US prayer book) of the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell”. Modern versions of the creed soften it a bit: “He descended to the dead.” Most worshipers these days, who come only to Sunday celebrations of the Eucharist, will have no clue about this doctrine, since it gets no mention in the Nicene Creed.

It does pop up, at least in parishes I serve, in a big way once a year. It is my practice to read (or to have the deacon read) St. John Chrysostom’s brilliant Easter sermon at the Great Vigil of Easter. It makes Easter all about Christ’s complete and utter victory over Satan in the harrowing of hell.

The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.
The Lord vanquished hell when he descended into it.
The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, were placed in turmoil when he encountering you below.”

Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed.
Hell was in turmoil having been mocked.
Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed.
Hell was in turmoil having been abolished.
Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.

Hell grasped a corpse, and met God.
Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.
Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.

Wow. I don’t know about you, but I find it profoundly empowering to contemplate a God who would enter the depths of hell to liberate captives. A God who would defy Satan in hell will also enter into the depths of our humanity to free us from sin.

Unfortunately, lots of people deny the existence of hell, even though Jesus teaches about it and there’s clear biblical witness and church tradition to support its existence. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not thrilled about hell, nor do I think it’s helpful to use hell as a blunt object to coax people into doing the right thing here on earth. I hope that God is generous at judgment day, since I cannot imagine what sins would merit condemnation. But in the end, it seems to me that hell is a part of the package of God’s economy of salvation.

Of course, there’s a long history of avoidance of this doctrine. Some of the framers of the first American prayer book wanted to take “He descended into hell” out of the Apostles’ Creed, and they ended up making that clause optional. It didn’t fit with Enlightenment sensibilities. (Insert joke here about a long history of rampant heresy in the Episcopal Church.)

So, for what it’s worth, here’s my take on all this. It’s difficult to square the idea of hell with the idea of a loving God. Who would be in that hell? Fortunately, this decision is about our pay grade. And, in fact, I think it’s liberating to worship a God who enters the depths of hell to proclaim perfect love and freedom. A God who enters hell can also be present in Darfur. A God who defeats hell can defeat anything.

Here are some questions on which you might meditate:

  • In your experience, does the church talk about hell too much or too little?
  • What does it mean for us — in our earthly pilgrimage — to contemplate Jesus Christ preaching to those held captive in hell?
  • Might God’s mission to liberate humanity compel us, as the Body of Christ, to enter the places of “hell on earth” to preach and to practice liberation?

We thank you, heavenly Father, that you have delivered us from the dominion of sin and death and brought us into the kingdom of your Son; and we pray that, as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his love he may raise us to eternal joys; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Previous: Article II: Of the Word, or Son of God, which was made very man
Next: Article IV: Of the Resurrection of Christ

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7 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    As far as I can understand Christian doctrine, which apparently isn’t all that well, the sin that warrants condemnation is prideful refusal to be made perfect in the likeness of God.

    As I hear it, the overwhelming majority of us will be judged guilty. And if we actually refuse to be perfect when it’s offered, and to live in right relationship, I don’t see that it’s difficult to square that with a loving God at all. It’s just kind of math. Any number of other numbers multiplied by one zero will still be zero.

  2. Bob Chapman says:

    It is easy to call a God of double predestination an abomination. That is, God wills some people to Heaven; God wills some people to Hell. What part of John 3.16 does anyone who supports double predestination not understand? (I’m looking at you, John Calvin and John Piper.)

    That said, how would it be “love” for God to force anyone to spend eternity with God who does not want the gift? God created us to share a relationship of love, not to rape the unwilling.

    And, I agree 100% that it is above the pay grade of any human to determine who has given that final rejection. There is comfort in that any Heaven that could admit Adolf Hitler could also admit me.

    All my hope on God is founded, my rock and my salvation, through the action of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

  3. JCF says:

    I find “Hell” (as the Gehenna/Lake of Fire/Gnashing of Teeth place) to be an entirely human creation (our fallen desire to see REVENGE! on our enemies), which loses nothing of its humanness, by being projected upon God in the Bible.

    Sorry, Scott, but there it is: I don’t believe in Hell. I find a god that could countenance a place of eternal torment of his creation (and don’t buy the “we condemn ourselves there” argument either) unworthy of worship.

    I know you haven’t gotten to the Articles about the Bible yet—but the Bible CONTAINS “all things necessary to salvation”. It doesn’t mean that every word, phrase or passage is (ahem) the “God’s Honest Truth.”

    Hell is one such human LIE, inserted into (the Mouth of God via) the text.

  4. Gary Goldacker says:

    This is the phrase that almost kept me from becoming an Episcopalian in college (having been raised a Methodist!) But thanks to a great priest (Jack Harris)who told me not to worry about some things, here I am. Thanks for a great explanation, even if I had to wait nearly 50 years to get it!

  5. Peter Ould says:

    Loving this series Scott and *genuinely* looking forward to how you handle 17 and 18…


  6. Bob Chapman says:

    @JCF, are you looking for a partner in love or a parent?

    Yes, the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son did take the son back–with rejoicing. A loving parent always hopes for a child’s return. This is one metaphor for God’s love for us. But, it isn’t the only one.

    Another analogy is that of the bridegroom. I have trouble seeing how someone sleeping in another’s bed will be welcomed backed when the bridegroom returns. Or, what it would mean if the returning Bridegroom forces his way into another marriage chamber to claim a bride sleeping with another groom. There is a lack of love in such situations.

    While, there is value in thinking about God as a parent, God is more than a parent to us.

  7. Bob Chapman says:

    @Peter, I’m not a theologian nor do I play one on Sunday morning, but the answer to #17 might be in the absence of a mention of “double predestination” in this article.

    In addition, St. Clive of Oxbridge answered problems with #18 in his last book of the Chronicles of Narnia Series, The Last Battle.