Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | April 13, 2009

Quotes from Concord — The Descent into Hell

There is often great confusion over four little words in the Apostles’ Creed:  He descended into hell. Why did Jesus do this?  When did Jesus do this?  How did Jesus do this?  Is it a part of His Good Friday suffering for the sins of the world, or the Easter victory of the empty tomb?

Only a couple passages in Scripture touch on it

  • 1 Peter 3:18-20:  “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water.”
  • and Colossians 2:13-15:  “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.  And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

It would seem that putting these passages together with Jesus’ words from the cross, where He said that then and there God, His Father, had forsaken Him in the place of all other sinners (cf. Mark 15:33-34, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 3:25-26, Isaiah 59:2) and later, “It is finished” (John 19:30), would lead us to conclude quickly and easily that the descent into hell is a part of Christ’s victory celebration, His triumph, and not a further part of His suffering.  So Scripture leads us to confess, but not always and everywhere has the Church confessed this.

Here is how the Lutheran Church handled this article of faith in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord:

This article has also been disputed among some theologians who have subscribed to the Augsburg Confession:  When and in what manner did the Lord Christ, according to our simple Christian faith, descend into hell?  Was this done before or after His death?  Did this happen only to His soul, only to the divinity, or with body and soul, spiritually or bodily?  Does this article belong to Christ’s passion or to His glorious victory and triumph?

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 about it.  It should be believed and taught only in the simplest way.  Teach it like Dr. Luther, of blessed memory, in his sermon at Torgau in the year 1533.  He has explained the article in a completely Christian way.  He separated all useless, unnecessary questions from it, and encouraged all godly Christians to believe with Christian simplicity.

It is enough if we know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and the jaws of hell.  We will save our questions and not curiously investigate about how this happened until the other world.  Then not only this mystery, but others also will be revealed that we simply believe here and cannot grasp with our blind reason.

— Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article IX: Descent of Christ into Hell, from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, A Readers Edition, Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

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Responses

  1. Hi, nice post. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely be coming back to your site.


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