In the Apostles’ Creed (and also the Athanasian Creed), we confess that after Jesus died He descended into hell. Where in the Bible is this taught? Why did Jesus go there?
From earliest times, Christians have believed that Jesus’ descent into hell is most clearly taught in 1 Peter 3:18–19. In the context of encouraging Christians who were in danger of suffering persecution for their faith, the apostle Peter writes: “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” (ESV).
Christians also have seen references to this doctrine in other scriptural passages such as Eph. 4:8–9 and Rom. 10:6–8. In an April 1533 Easter sermon at Torgau, Martin Luther spoke of Christ’s descent into hell and quoted Ps. 16:10 with reference to Him: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol. . . .” (ESV).
In the 1 Peter 3 passage, the apostle Peter refers to a sequence of events: Christ died, was made alive (KJV: “quickened”), and went to preach to the spirits in prison. A variety of interpretations have been given to Peter’s words (also in early centuries), but a key question is this: Why did Jesus, after He came to life before His resurrection appearances, preach in the presence of departed unbelievers and the devil and his angels in hell? Was it to give unbelievers a “second chance” through a proclamation of the Gospel? Did Jesus visit hell in order to suffer further? Did He descend to deliver those who died before the Flood, or Old Testament patriarchs and saints, as some have thought? Or, is the reference to Christ’s descent no more than a figurative expression for Christ’s suffering for humanity? Lutherans have held that none of these explanations is acceptable.
Lutherans have understood the Bible to teach that Christ went to hell to declare His triumph as God’s Messiah over death and the power of the devil. The Lutheran confessional writing, the Formula of Concord, states in summary: “We simply believe that the entire person [Jesus Christ], God and man, descended into hell after the burial, conquered the devil, destroyed hell’s power, and took from the devil all his might” (Solid Declaration, Art. IX).
Although Christ’s descent into hell lies beyond our understanding, we can derive great comfort from this important teaching of Scripture, especially in times when our faith is being tested. We who believe in the exalted Christ can be confident and certain that “neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us” (Solid Declaration IX).
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About the Author: Until his retirement, Dr. Jerald C. Joersz was an associate executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations.” />