by Rev. Shawn L. Kumm
Hell. Who wants to go there? Jesus tells us just enough about heaven that we know we want to be there. Jesus tells us just enough about hell that we know we don’t.
The word hell was spoken at your baptism. Right smack dab in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed, there it is: Jesus descended into hell. Big deal, right?
Yeah, hell is a BIG deal. Misery loves company, and Satan desires nothing more than to have lots of company. That is why Jesus suffered on the cross so that you wouldn’t ever have to. You don’t need to worry about hell.
But did Jesus descend into hell in order to suffer—or did He go there for another reason? There are those who understand these words to mean that after Jesus died upon the cross He wasn’t quite finished with His work, so He needed to suffer in hell. This doesn’t make sense, since Jesus exclaimed on the cross, “It is finished.” This literally means, “It is finished and stands finished forever” (John 19:30). On the cross, Jesus has already suffered hell. Period.
The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the Christian faith in the tightest, shortest language possible. There are churches that confess creeds. There are churches that do not confess creeds. There are churches that sort of confess creeds.
The sort-of-confessing-creeds churches omit the words, “He descended into hell.” Since the phrase doesn’t show up until later in history, these folks believe the words shouldn’t be said.
But a later addition to this creed shouldn’t bother us. The words may very well have been added to combat the wrong teaching that the effect of Jesus’ death and resurrection wasn’t as far-reaching as everyone thought. Even now it appears Satan is still in control and hellish things still happen in this world. So some conclude that Jesus’ work on the cross just wasn’t quite enough. But remember Jesus said, “It is finished.” His devil-defeating work reached the very pits of hell. In fact, Jesus descended there to tell Satan himself.
At least two passages of Scripture teach us this:
“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 . . .” (1 Peter 3:18-19).
“He [that is, Jesus] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Him” (Colossians 2:15).
In all of His resurrected glory, Jesus descended into hell so you wouldn’t have to. If Jesus’ death is your death and if Jesus’ resurrection is your resurrection (see Romans 6:3-11), then Jesus’ descent is your descent. There is great comfort in that for you. Who of us could stand face-to-face with Satan and proclaim such Good News? Not a single one of us. I know I wouldn’t want to and I don’t have to. Neither do you.
But there is the pesky question about timing. We know when all but one of the events of Holy Week happens. But the one event we wonder about is Jesus’ descent into hell. Does His descent happen as soon as Jesus says, “It is finished?” Does Jesus go to hell when the sun rises on Easter morning? We simply do not know. God, in His wisdom, chooses not to say much of anything about the invisible world. Think about, for example, how He does not tell us during which of the six days of creation the angels were made. There is a curiosity on the part of God’s people to have answers about angels and demons. But God’s Word tells us just enough to know they exist.
So why don’t we know when Jesus descends? Perhaps, just as in the same way when we focus on what we know about the angels or demons, the more we are tempted we will be to know less about Jesus. Jesus wants us to focus on Him and no one else. Jesus goes victoriously to hell for us so that we don’t.