We read in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “descended into hell.” Some Christians are unsure about this idea today.
A couple years back Matt Chandler preached a popular sermon series on the Creed. “Even to this day,” he said, “there are large swaths of evangelicals who read the creed but leave out ‘descended into hell’ because we don’t believe He actually went to the place of hell and did that. Right? The Bible certainly doesn’t teach that.”
The explanation I heard as a teen said the line referred to Christ’s agony on the cross. That’s the angle Reformed Protestants have followed for centuries. It’s what Chandler affirms. But that’s not how the ancient church understood it.
While Christ’s body rested in Joseph’s crypt, the Lord entered hades—not as victim, but as a victor. In the harrowing of hell, as it’s called, Christ blasted through Satan’s gates like a battering ram. “When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled,” said Cyril of Alexandria; “the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone” (Ancient Commentary on Scripture 11.107).
Wrote fourth-century Spanish poet Prudentius: “The door is forced and yields before Him; the bolts are torn away; down falls the pivot broken; that gate so ready to receive the inrush, so unyielding in face of those that would return, is unbarred and gives back the dead…” (The Daily Round 9).
What’s the biblical basis for this view? Chandler’s wrong; there are hints in a handful of passages. In the language of the gospel, he came to bind the strong man—the devil—and loot his house, the treasure of Satan being the souls of men. As Ephesians 4 says, Christ “descended into the lower parts of the earth” and “led captivity captive.” To these passages add 1 Peter 3.19, in which the crucified Christ “proclaimed to the spirits in prison,” that is, in hades.
Some translations render that word “preached,” but the idea is one of declaration, an announcement of victory. That’s exactly how fourth-century hymnographer Ephrem the Syrian saw it: “The voice of our Lord sounded into Hell, and He cried aloud and burst the graves one by one. Tremblings took hold on Death; Hell that never of old had been lighted up, into it there flashed splendors, from the Watchers [angels] who entered in and brought out the dead to meet Him, who was dead and gives life to all” (Nisibene Hymns 36.11).
Christ “shouted with authority to the suffering souls, according to the words of the new covenant,” said Cyril, “so that he might save all those who would believe in him” (ACS 11.107).
Melito of Sardis, writing in the late second century, presented this as a bold proclamation as well:
“It is I,” says Christ,
“I am he who destroys death,
and triumphs over the enemy,
and crushes Hades,
and binds the strong man,
and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights.”
(On Pascha 102)
Satan never saw it coming. Christ bound the strong man, raided his house, and liberated the captives. The classic iconographic depiction of the resurrection shows Christ ascending from the grave, hades’ doors lying broken in a crosswise pattern, as the Lord lifts Adam and Eve—that is, all of humanity—by the wrist, freeing them from their age-old imprisonment to the devil. Directly referencing the gospel imagery, the icon often depicts Satan as an old man, bound beneath the feet of the risen Christ.
Despite what some might think today, that’s how the early church understood those passages. The harrowing of hell represents the victory of Christ over all his enemies. It also represents the path of salvation open to all who would believe. While some theology has little love for his doctrine, Christians have long seen it as a vision of the conquering Savior, whose triumph is so complete, so thorough, so exhaustive that he descends to hell and empties it of every soul who responds to his call.
Because of harrowing of hell, we can join King David and sing, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise your name” (Ps 142.7).
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