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Article 3 — Of the going down of Christ into hell

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Posted by Mark D. Thompson, 3 Mar 2017

Mark Thompson examines one of the most controversial of all the Thirty-nine Articles.

As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also it is to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

Article 3 is the shortest but, at the time they were written, one of the most controverted of the 39 Articles. Debates on the continent spilled over to England, where, amongst others, the Marian exiles who had spent time in Geneva began to champion the Swiss reformers’ understanding that this was an important article that helped us to understand the fullness of what Christ suffered on the cross. The version that was approved in 1563 and published in 1571 was shorter than the same article as it had appeared in 1553. A further sentence which referenced 1 Peter 3 and spoke of Christ’s spirit being present with the spirits in prison and preaching to them was removed, it seems, on the floor of the English convocation of bishops. This had the effect of presenting the fact of Christ’s presence among the dead without providing an explanation.

One of the difficulties then and now with this article has been the use of the word ‘hell’. The original Anglo-Saxon word simply meant ‘covered’ or ‘unseen’. It referred to a realm that was beyond human perception. In this way, it echoed the Greek word ‘hades’ or the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ that spoke of the realm of the departed. However, by the time of the Reformation the word had narrowed its meaning to the place where the unrepentant wicked experience the judgment and wrath of God. This reality had been designated by a very different Greek word ‘Gehenna’.

So one of the big questions surrounding this article and the article from the Apostles’ Creed which it reflects, is whether the word used designates the place of the dead or the place of torment and judgment. It would seem that in 1563 the Convocation was content to leave all options open.

Not quite all. It is clear from the draft papers that Thomas Cranmer and his successors wanted to avoid any suggestion of purgatory or a second chance for conversion after death. Cranmer’s original line to that effect was probably dropped because the subject would be dealt with in a later article (Article 22).

The most important question concerning this article is the question of its biblical warrant. Is it really what the Bible teaches? Those who have spoken about it (and the clause from the Apostles’ Creed) have in fact appealed to quite an array of biblical passages to provide a ground for talking like this.

a.  The words of David in Psalm 16:10, taken up by Peter in Acts 2:27, 31 and applied to Jesus: ‘You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption’. He was in Sheol but he was not abandoned there.

b.  Jonah, the only Old Testament prophet to whom the Lord compares himself, experienced judgment in order to save the lives of others. ‘For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish’, Jesus said, ‘so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’ (Matthew 12:40).

c In Matthew 12:29, in answer to the blasphemy of the Jewish leaders, Jesus asked ‘Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house’ (Matthew 12:29). Some Lutherans tended to favour this as an explanation of what happened when Jesus ‘descended into hell’.

d.  Romans 10:5–7 speaks of not needing to ascend to heaven to bring Christ down or descending to the abyss in order to bring Christ up from the dead. It is part of a larger argument but assumes that at one point he was among the dead, though he is no longer there. He does not need to be brought back because he has been raised from the dead.

e.  Ephesians 4, and in particular Paul’s explanation of Psalm 68:18, involves the expression ‘he descended to the lower parts of the earth’. While some have taken this as simply a reference to the incarnation, why did Paul use this expression if all he meant was ‘the earth’?

f.  Colossians 2:15 speaks of how Christ ‘disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in the cross’. In the context, though, it is clear that what Paul has in mind is the triumph of the cross itself and not some subsequent activity.

g.  The most often quoted text in this connection is 1 Peter 3:18–20, the text referred to in the 1553 Forty-Two Articles. The text contains a number of unanswered questions (when did Christ preach to the people of Noah’s day? Through Noah at the time of the Flood or after the crucifixion? What was the purpose of that preaching? To save or announce his triumph?). However, in its context this is an illustration intended as an encouragement to persevere in suffering because Christ suffered ‘once for all’ in order to save us.

h.  Revelation 1:18 contains the words of the glorious risen Christ: ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades’. It is a message of complete and utter triumph over the last great enemy of men and women. Death has been defeated, completely emptied of all power.

The idea of Christ’s descent to hell, however it might be explained, is based on the cumulative evidence of biblical testimony like this. Perhaps it is ultimately unhelpful to anchor it in any one of these passages but we should rather see it arising as part of the biblical theological movement from promise to fulfilment. The great curse that entered human experience after the Fall—death and the right and perfect judgment of a holy God—has finally been overcome by the one who himself experienced it in all its fullness. There is not one aspect of death as we experience that he did not share in order to triumph over it. As one writer deftly put it, ‘Death has no mystery which He did not fathom’ (A.J. Tait).

What then is the theological and practical import of this doctrine? In outline, we must say:

1.  There is no second chance on the other side of the grave. Nothing in the Bible suggests anything like post-mortem repentance or post-mortem faith. It is our response to the gospel in this life which determines our destiny, a response entirely enabled by the work of God’s Spirit in us. There is no license here for a probationary hell, purgatory, or a second chance.

2.  The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ground of our personal salvation but also much more than that. There is no part of creation that remains untouched by what God has done in Christ. The cross changes everything and by the power of what Jesus accomplished there, the principalities and powers are disarmed and we have nothing to fear (Colossians 2:15).

3.  The cross is sufficient. From the cross Jesus said ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). Jesus bore all the physical and spiritual dimensions of the curse against sin on the cross. It does not need to be supplemented because it is a complete redemption.

4.  The descent into hell is not something added to the cross (he died and he descended into hell) but instead a theological perspective on the cross. Jesus bore death for us as a physical and spiritual reality. He bore the whole thing, not just the dimensions we can witness from this side of the experience. He drank the cup of God’s wrath to the dregs.

5.  The descent into hell helps us understand the resurrection as well. It was a real resurrection and not simply a resuscitation. He was raised out of the fullness of the judgment he took upon himself for us.

6.  The descent into hell helps us to see the extent of God’s action to save us. He did not deal with our guilt and corruption and alienation from him and enslavement to sin in a superficial way. In the weakness and humiliation of the cross, the sovereign God triumphed over it all and has left no aspect of it intact. God is completely and utterly our Saviour.

7.  The descent into hell is a richly comforting doctrine for Christian men and women. There is no aspect of what faces us that he has not experienced and emptied of power. Those who belong to Jesus have absolutely nothing to fear. Jesus has the keys of death and Hades.

Mark D. Thompson is the Principal of Moore Theological College, Sydney. He has also written these two Churchman articles on subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles: The Origin of the Thirty-nine Articles, and A History of Subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles.

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