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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Hell, Christs Descent Into
(descensus ad inferos; κατάβασις εἰς ἃδου ), a phrase used to denote the doctrine taught, or supposed to be taught, in the fifth article of the Apostles' Creed. I. History of the Clause. — The clause is not found in the Nicaeno- Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381), nor in any creed before that date. Pearson states that it was not "so anciently used in the Church" as the rest of the Apostles' Creed; and that it first appears in the Creed of Aquileia, 4th century, in the words descendit in inferna. King, in his Histor. Symbol. Apost. c. 4, asserts that it was inserted as a testimony against Apollinarism; but this view is controverted by Waage in his Commentatio on this article of the Creed (1836). It is certain, however, that the clause was afterwards used by the orthodox as an argument against the Apollinarian heresy which denied to Christ a rational human soul (see Neander, Church History, Torrey's ed., 2, 433). Rufinus († 410), while stating that it is found in the Creed of Aquileia, denies that it existed before that time in the Creed as used in the Roman or Eastern churches. Rufinus adds that "though the Roman and Oriental churches had not the words; yet they had the sense of them in the word buried," implying that the words "he descended into Hades" are equivalent to "he descended into the grave." Socrates, Hist. Eccl. 2, 37, 41, gives it as stated in the Arian Creed adopted at Sirmiumn A.D. 350, and at Rimini in 360. It is given in the Athanasian Creed (5th century). It fails to be found, except in the Athanasian Creed and in a few MSS., before the 6th century, but became quite common in the 7th, and is universal after the 8th century (Pearson, On the Creed, art. 5, notes). It remains in the Apostles' Creed as used in the Greek and Roman churches; the Lutheran Church, and the Church of England. It is also retained in the Creed as used by the Protestant Episcopal Church, with a note in the rubric. that "any churches may omit the words He descended into hell, or may, instead of them, use the words He went into the place of departed spirits, which are considered as words of the same meaning in the Creed." The clause was omitted by the Convention of 1785, but, the English bishops objecting, it was replaced, with the qualification named, after a great deal of discussion in 1786, 1789, and 1792 (see White, Hist. of the Prot. Episcopal Church; Muenscher, in Bib. Sac. April, 1853). It is omitted in the Creed as used by the Methodist Episcopal Church.
II. The Doctrine-
1. Scripture. — There is no passage in which it is expressly stated that Christ descended into hell, but there are several which express or imply that his soul went, after his death, into the "place of departed spirits. (1.) Thus David says (Psalms 16:9-10): "Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption." And Peter applies this passage to Christ (Acts 2:25-27): "For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face; for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption."
(2.) The passage in Ephesians 4:8-10 ("Now that he ascended," etc.), is supposed by some writers to imply the descent into Hades, but the best interpreters apply it to the Incarnation.
(3.) Paul, in Romans 10:7 (‘Who shall descend into the deep," etc. τίς καταβὴσεται εἰς τὴν ἄβυσσον), seems to imply a descent of Christ "into the abyss."
(4.) 1 Peter 3:18-20 : "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he night bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water." This passage is relied on by many, not only as strongly asserting that Christ descended into Hades, but also as explaining the object of that descent. But the weight of interpretation, from Augustine downwards, seems to be against this view. Dr. A. Schweitzer, in a recent monograph (Hinabgefahren z. Hille als Mythus, etc., Zurich, 1868, p. 49), interprets the passage to mean that the preaching spoken of was "addressed to ‘ the spirits in prison' in the days of Noah, while they were yet in the flesh; and this preaching consisted, to a great extent, in the building of the ark. By this work, undertaken at the command of the Spirit of Christ, and prosecuted, through many years, to completion in the sight of the people, they were warned to repent; but the people persisted in disobedience, and at last the flood swept them away" (Baptist Quarterly Review, July, 1869, p. 381). This view accords with that held by Augustine, Aquinas, Scaliger, Beza, Gerhard, Hammond, Leighton, and others, and which has of late been readopted by Dr. Hofmann (Schriftbeweis, II, 1, 33m), of the influence of the pre-existent Spirit of Christ at the time of the Deluge. It is also the interpretation of the passage given by Dr. A. Clarke (Comm. on 1 Peter). So also Dr. Bethune: "Christ, in Noah, by his Spirit, preached to them before the Flood, just as in his ministers he preaches to us by his Spirit now" (Lectures on the Heidelbery Catechism, 1, 406). Alford (Comment. ad loc.) gives a copious account (chiefly translated from Meyer) of the views of various commentators, ancient and modern; on the passage, and subjoins his own view, as follows: "I understand these words to say that our Lord, in his disembodied state, did go to the place of detention of departed spirits, and did there announce his work of redemption, preach salvation, in fact, to the disembodied spirits of those who refused to obey the voice of God when the judgment of the.
Flood was hanging over them. Why these rather than others are mentioned- whether merely as a sample of the like gracious work on others, or for some special reason unimaginable by us — we cannot say. It is ours to deal with the plain words of Scripture, and to accept its revelations so far as vouchsafed to us. And they are vouchsafed to us to the utmost limit of legitimate inference from revealed facts. That inference every intelligent reader will draw from the fact here announced; it is not purgatory, it is not universal restitution, but it is one which throws blessed light on one of the darkest enigmas of the divine justice-the cases where the final doom seems infinitely out of proportion to the lapse which has incurred it; and as we cannot say to what other cases this κἠευγμα may have applied, so it would be presumption hi us to limit its occurrence or its efficacy. The reason of mentioning, here these sinners above other sinners appears to be their connection with the type of baptism which follows. If so, who shall say that the blessed act was confined to them?" (Comm. on N.T. vol. 4, pt. i, p. 368).
2. The Fathers. — In several of the Ante-Nicene fathers we find the doctrine that "Christ descended into Hades to announce to the souls of the patriarchs and others there the accomplishment of the work of redemption, and to conduct them to his kingdom of glory." So Justin Martyr († 167?), Dial. cuns Tryph. § 72, cites a passage from Jeremiah (cut out, he says, by the Jews) as follows: "The Lord God remembered his dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and he descended to preach to them his own salvation." Irenaeus († 200?), Adv. Haer. 4, 27, 2: "The Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching his advent there also, and declaring the remission of sins received by those who believe on him" (see also 5, 31, 2). Clement of Alexandria († 220) devotes chap. 6 of book 6 of the Stromata to the "preaching of the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles in Hades." See also Tertullian, De Anima, 7, 55; Origen, Cont. Cels. 2, 43. The Gnostics generally denied the descensus cad isnferos; but Marcion (2nd century) regarded it as intended to benefit the heathen who were in need of redemption. The later fathers were still more distinct in their utterances; see Cyril, Catech. 4, 11; 14:19; Ambrose, De Incar. 37, 42; Augustine, Epist. 164 et al.; Jerome, Epist. 22 et al. "The later fathers generally adopted the notion that, till Christ's death, the patriarchs and prophets were in Hades, but afterwards (from the time that Christ said to the thief on the cross that he should be with him in Paradise) they passed into Paradise, which, therefore, they distinguished from Hades. Hades, indeed, they looked on as a place of rest to the just, but Paradise as far better. Here, of course, we begin to perceive the germ of the doctrine of the Limbus Patrum. Yet the notion entertained by the fathers was vastly different from that of the mediaeval Church. Another opinion, however, grew up also in the early ages, namely, that Christ not only translated the pious from Hades to more joyous abodes, but that even some of those who in old times had-been disobedient, yet, on hearing Christ's preaching, believed, and so were saved and delivered from torment and hell. This appears to have been the opinion of Augustine. He was evidently puzzled as to the meaning of the word Hades, and doubted whether it ever meant a place of rest and happiness (although at times he appears to have admitted that it did); and, thinking it a place of torment, he thought Christ went thither to save some souls, which were in torment, from thence. Some, indeed, went so far as to think that hell vas cleared of all souls that were there in torment, and that all were taken up with Christ when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven; but this was reckoned as a heresy.... One principal reason why the fathers laid great stress (on the belief in Christ's descent to Hades was this. The Arians and Apollinarians denied the existence of a natural human soul in Jesus Christ. ‘ Now the true doctrine of our Lord's humanity, namely, that ‘ he was perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,' was most strongly maintained by asserting the article of his descent to Hades. For whereas his body was laid in the grave, and his soul went down to Hades, he must have had both body and soul. Accordingly, the fathers with one consent maintain the descent of Christ's soul to hell" (Browne, On the Thirty-nine Articles, p. 93). Nevertheless, it was not opposition to Apollinarism that originally led to the adoption of the clause into the Creed; the Gnostics, long before, had denied the descensus ad inferos, but Apollinaris did not deny it (Neander, Ch. Hist., Torrey, 2, 433).
In what may be called the mythology of Christendom, the "descent into hell" has always played an important part. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus contains a vivid description of it, very highly colored. A voice like thunder is heard crying, "Lift up your gates, and be ye lift up," etc. But the gates were made fast, but on a repetition of the call were opened, "and the King of glory entered, in form as a man, and all the dark places of Hades were lighted up." "And straightway Hades cried out (ch. 22),' We are conquered. Woe unto us! But who art thou, that hast such power and privilege? And what art thou, that comest hither without sin, small in seeming but excellent in power, the humble and the great, slave at once and master, soldier and king, wielding power over the dead and the living, nailed to the cross, and the destroyer of our power? Truly thou art the Jesus of whom the arch satrap Satan spake to us, that by thy cross and death thou shouldest purchase the universe!' Then the King of Glory, holding Satan by the head, delivered him to the angels, and said, ‘ Bind his hands and feet, and neck and mouth, with irons.' And giving him over to Hades, he said, ‘ Receive and hold him surely until my second advent' (ch. 24). Then the King of Glory stretched out his right hand, and took the forefather Adam, and raised him up, and turning to the rest also, he said, ‘ Come with me, all of you, as many as have died by the wood which this man ate of; for lo! I upraise ye all by the wood of the cross!' After these things he brought them all forth. And the forefather Adam, filled with exceeding joy, said, ‘ I render thee thanks, O Lord, that thou hast brought me up from the depths of Hades.' Thus, too, said all the prophets and saints: ‘ We thank thee, O Christ, Savior of the world, that thou hast redeemed our life from corruption.' And while they were saying these things, the Savior blessed Adam in the forehead with the sign of the cross, and did the like to the patriarchs and the prophets, and the martyrs and forefathers, and taking them with him, he rose up out of Hades. And as he journeyed, the holy fathers, accompanying him, sang, ‘ Praised be he who hath come in the name of the Lord. Hallelujah!"‘(Thilo, Cod. Apocryph. 1, 667 sq.; Forbes, On the Thirty-nine Articles, 1, 52 sq.) A dramatic representation of the "descent into hell," in imitation of the above picture in Nicodemus, is given in the discourse De Adventu et annunciatione Joannis.Bpt. ap. Inferos, commonly ascribed to Eusebius of Emesa (tc. 360); see Augusti's edition of Eusebius of Emesa, p. 1 sq. (Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines, § 134).
3. Middle Age. — These images took possession of the popular mind, and were even held as true pictures by many of the clergy. In the medieval mysteries, "the harrowing of hell" was one of the most popular representations. Death and hell were pictured as dismayed at the loss of their victims, as Christ was to set all the captives free. So the Vision of Piers Plowman declares that Christ
"Would come as a Kynge, Crouned with aungels, And have out of helle Alle mennes soules."
The subject was also a favorite one in the religious art of the 14th and 15th centuries.
The scholastic divines divided Hell into three different apartments: "1. Hell, properly so called, where the devils and the damned are confined; 2. Those subterranean regions which may be regarded as the intermediate states between heaven and hell, and be again subdivided into
(a.) Purgatory, which lies nearest to hell;
(b.) The limbus infantum (puerorum), where all those children remain who die unbaptized;
(c.) The limbus patrun, the abode of the Old Testament saints, the place to which Christ went to preach redemption to the souls in prison.
The limbus last mentioned was also called Abraham's bosom; different opinions obtained concerning its relation to heaven and hell" (Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines, § 208). Aquinas taught that Christ rescued the souls of the pious of the old dispensation from the limbus patrum (Summa Suppl. qu. 69, art. 5).
4. Modern. —
(1.) The Greek Church holds that the descensus was a voluntary going down into Hades of the human soul of Christ united to his divinity; that he remained there during the period between his death and his resurrection, and devoted himself to the work he had performed on earth: i.e. that he offered redemption and preached the Gospel to those who were subject to Satan's power in consequence of original sin, releasing all believers, and all who died in piety under the O.T. dispensation, from Hades. (Conf. Orthod. 1, 49, ed. Kimmel, 1840, p. 118).
(2.) The Roman Church rests its doctrine in tradition alone. It teaches that Christ, in his entire personality, including his divine and human natures, descended voluntarily, for the sake of the saints of Israel, into the linbus patrum, or into the ignus purgatorius (fire of purgatory), and there demonstrated himself Son of God by conquering the daemons, and by granting to the souls of the ancients who dwelt in Hades their freedom from the limbus, and admission to felicity in heaven. "His soul also really and substantially descended into hell, according to David's testimony: Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell'… (Psalm 15:10). He descended in order that, clothed with the spoils of the arch-enemy, he might conduct into heaven those holy fathers and the other just souls whose liberation from prison he had purchased," etc. (Cat. Concil. Trid. art. 5).
(3.) Lutherans. — Luther himself did not speak positively on this topic. He agreed at first with Jerome and Gregory in supposing a limbus patrum whither Christ went. But whenever he mentioned the subject after 1533, he was accustomed to remark that Christ destroyed the power of the devil and of hell, whither he went with soul and body. The later Lutheran theology recognized the descent as a real descent into hell. Christ, the God-man, after the resurrection and the reunion of his soul with his body, immediately before his reappearance on earth, i.e. early on Easter morning, went, body, and soul, to the hell of the damned, the time which elapsed between his death on the cross and the resurrection having been spent in Paradise. The "descent into hell" was the first act accomplished by the God-man after his entrance into his divine unlimited power, and is therefore considered as the first degree of the state of exaltation. It thus constitutes also his first entering into possession of the kingdom of his power, and in the revelation of his victory over the devil, and the consequent inability of the latter to prevail against believers, whence the" descent" is also designated as "the triumph over the devil and his angels." His preaching in hell is designated as condemnatory (legalis and damnatoria, Formula Concordiae, art. 9). The Lutheran divines have generally maintained the doctrine as thus put forth, though not without controversy among themselves. AEpinus (Johannes Hoch, † 1533) taught that Christ's descent into hell belonged, not to his state of exaltation, but to that of humiliation, his soul suffering the punishments of hell while his body remained in the grave. He denied that 1 Peter 3:18 refers to "the descent into hell" at all.
(4.) Reformed. — In the Reformed theology in general, the "descent into hell" has been interpreted metaphorically, or as meaning simply either the burial of Christ or his sufferings. So Calvin: "It was necessary for Christ to contend with the powers of hell and the horror of eternal death."… He was treated as a criminal himself, to sustain all the punishments which would have been inflicted on transgressors; only with this exception, that it was not possible that he should be holden of the pains of death. Therefore it is no wonder if he be said to have descended into hell, since he suffered that death which the wrath of God inflicts on transgressors" (Institutes, bk. 2, ch. 16 § 10). The Heidelberg Catechism substantially follows Calvin: "Quest. 44. 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, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell." Dr. Nevin remarks on this answer that it gives the words of the Creed" a signification which is good in its own nature, but, at the same time, notoriously at war with the historical sense of the clause — itself." The doctrine is stated in the Westminster Catechism (Larger), answer to question 50, as follows: "Christ's humiliation after 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 has been otherwise expressed in the words ‘ he descended into hell." Beza maintained that the descent into Hades simply meant the burial of Christ; and in this opinion he was followed by Drusius, by Dr. Barrow, and other English divines: and so Piscator, and several of the Remonstrants (Arminius, Curcellaeus, Limborch), refer it to the state of death (status ignominiosus) as part of the humiliation to which the Prince of Life was subjected.
Church of England. — The third article of religion runs as follows: "As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed that he went down into hell." In the first book of Edward VI it was more fully stated as follows: "The body of Christ lay in the sepulcher until his resurrection; but his ghost departing from him, was with the ghosts which were in prison, or in hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of St. Peter doth testify." And in the Creed-in Meter, given at the end of the old version of the Psalms in the Prayer book, it is stated as follows:
"His body then was buried
As is our use and right;
His spirit after this descent
Into the lower parts,
Of them that long in darkness were,
The true light of their hearts."
Pearson, after an elaborate but not always luminous examination of the clause, sums up his own view of the doctrine as follows: "I give a full and undoubting assent unto this as to a certain truth, that when all the sufferings of Christ were finished on the cross, and his soul was separated from his body, though his body were dead, yet his soul died not; and though it died not, yet it underwent the condition of the souls of such as die; and being he died in the similitude of a sinner, his soul went to the place where the souls of men are kept who died for their sins, and so did wholly undergo the law of death: but because there was no sin in him, and he had fully satisfied for the sins of others which he took upon him, therefore, as God suffered not his Holy One to see corruption, so he left not his soul in hell, and thereby gave sufficient security to all those who belong to Christ of never coming under the power of Satan, or suffering in the flames prepared for the devil and his angels. And thus, and for these purposes, may every Christian say, I believe that Christ descended into hell" (Exp. of the Creed, Oxford, 1820, p. 376). Some of the divines of the Church of England held the Calvinistic view of this subject; others held the old theory of the descent of Christ into hell that he might triumph over Satan, as he had before triumphed over death and sin (Heylyn, Hist. Presb. p. 349; Bilson, Survey of Christ's Sufferings, 1604). Hugh Broughton (t 1612) taught conclusively that Hades is simply the place of departed souls, and that the rational soul of Christ, in. his intermediate state, went into this locality. This has since been the generally received opinion in the Church of England; so Horsley, "Christ descended to the invisible mansion of departed spirits, and to that part of it where the souls of the faithful, when delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity… In that place he could not but find the souls that are in it in safe keeping; and, in some way or other, it cannot but be supposed he would hold conference with them; and a particular conference with one class might be the means, and certainly could be no obstruction, to a general communication with all" (Sermons, vol. 1, Serm. 20). Dr. Joseph Muenscher discusses the whole subject, historically and critically, in an able article in the Bibliotheca Sacra, April, 1859, and concludes, as to the Protestant Episcopal Church, that her doctrine, as given in the Liturgy and Homilies, "can only be reconciled with that of the Creed and Articles by a liberal construction of the Creeds.' And this has been done by the American Church herself in the rubric prefixed to the Creed, in which she substitutes the words ‘ he went into the place of departed spirits' as of equivalent import. The terms in which this substitute is couched are quite general and indefinite. By employing the verb went in the place of descended, she virtually repudiates the hypothesis of a subterranean cavity as the receptacle of disembodied souls. And the phrase "place of departed spirits" determines nothing as to an immediate locality, separate and distinct from both heaven and hell. It merely affirms that the soul of Jesus at his death went to its appropriate place in the invisible, spiritual world. Thus understood, the dogma of Christ's descent into hell is freed from all difficulty and mystery, and made plain to the comprehension of every mind, as well as consonant with the general tenor of Scripture. The results to which we are brought by the preceding remarks are:
1. That the soul of man does not die or sleep with the body, but, immediately after the dissolution of the latter, passes into a separate, disembodied, conscious state, and into its appropriate place (so far as spirits may be supposed to occupy place), either of enjoyment or suffering- its heaven or its hell-according to the moral character which it may possess.
2. That there is no third intermediate place of spiritual existence; no subterranean habitation of disembodied souls, either of probation or of purgation; no imaginary paradise in the under world where the souls of the pious are preserved in safe-keeping; no limbus patrum, no limbus infantum, no purgatory.
3. That our Savior, according to the Creed, was perfect man a well as perfect God, having a human soul no less than a human body.
4. That when crucified he died in reality, and not merely in appearance (syncope), since there took place an actual separation of his soul and body.
5. That the idle and unprofitable question as to the object of Christ's descent into Hades is precluded; a question which greatly perplexed the fathers, the schoolmen, and the Reformers, and led to the invention of many absurd and unscriptural theories." See Petavius, De Theol. Dogmat. (Antw. 1700). tom. 2, pt. 2, p. 196; Knapp, Theology, § 97; Dietelmayr, Hist. dogmates de descensu Christi ad inferos (2nd ed. Aitorf, 1762, 8vo); Hacker, Dissert. de descensu Christi ad Inferos (Dresden, 1802); Pearson, On the Creed, art. 5; Edwards, History of Redemption, notes, p. 351,377; Stuart, Exegetical Essays on oFuture Punishment; Plumptre, Christ and Christendom, p. 342; Burnet, Hardwick, Browne, On the Thirty-nine Articles, art. 3; Neale, Hist. of the Puritans (Harpers' ed.), 1, 210; Kinig, die Lehre von Christi Hollenfahrt (Frankf. 1842); Bittcher, de Injeris rebusque post mortem futuris, etc. (Dresden, 1846,2 vols.); Guder, Lehre v. d. Erscheinung Christi u. d. Todten (Berlin, 1853); Glider, in Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 6:178; Zeitschriftifir die Lutherische Theologie, 1868, No. 4; Biblical Repository, April, 1843, p. 470; Bibliotheca Sacra, Nov. 1847, p. 708; Huidekoper, Christ's Mission to the Under World (Boston, 1854); Bp. Hobart, On the State of the Departed; Bethune, Lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism, lect. 19; Christian Examiner, 1, 401; Martensen, Christian Dogmatics, § 171; Dorner, Person of Christ (Index, s.v. Hell); Church Review, July, 1857; Muenscher, in Bibliotheca Sacra, April 1859. For old monographs on the subject, see Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 67. (See INTERMEDIATE STATE).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Hell, Christs Descent Into'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/h/hell-christs-descent-into.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
the Third Sunday after Epiphany