Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
He descended into hell. You say it every time you say the Creed. But what do you mean when you say it? Jesus descended into hell. It's not part of any of the Gospel narratives. Where did it come from? A couple of obscure passages are our only clue. As an aside to his proclamations of Jesus' ascension in to heaven, St. Paul writes, "In saying, 'He ascended,' what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things" (Ephesians 4:9-10).
St. Peter also makes an obscure reference in his first epistle: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water" (1 Peter 3:18).
Neither of these are particularly helpful; they're dark, obscure passages. Most of the questions we want to ask about this little sentence, He descended into hell, are simply not answered by the Bible. How did He do it? When did it happen? How could He if His body was in a grave? What happened when He was there? The Scriptures are silent.
This article, like the preceding article, cannot be grasped by the senses or by our reason. It must be grasped through faith alone. Therefore, it is our unanimous opinion that there should be no dispute over it. It should be believed and taught only in the simplest way (Formula of Concord, Epitome, IX.2).
As an example of such simple teaching the authors of the Formula point to Luther's Easter sermon from 1533, which teaches that Christ's descent into hell is an article of faith. Reason cannot grasp it. God has only seen fit to reveal that Christ has descended, not for punishment or for additional suffering, but in victory. His descent is the beginning of His exaltation.
And what's more, God reveals the purpose of His descent: to proclaim. Jesus descends into hell to preach the first Easter sermon. Luther says to believe it like the old pictures portray it: Christ as a mighty conqueror, holding a banner, with death and Satan under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:25-28). By His death, He has destroyed the power of death, and by His resurrection, He has opened for us the way of everlasting life. His descent means our resurrection.
So think on this and say it out loud whenever you say the creed -- as if you yourself are beating down Satan under your feet with these words -- He descended into hell. Because in Baptism you are joined with Christ's death and His resurrection and made part of His body, which means that His foot that holds down Satan is also your foot and His victory over death is your victory over death.
Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation, I am not so soon enticed.
Now that to the font I've traveled, All your might has come unraveled.
And, against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me!
-Lutheran Service Book 594, stanza 3
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, Missouri. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Created: March 26th, 2016