As we approach Good Friday, we reflect upon the suffering of our Saviour and his descent into hell for us.
Perhaps the most misunderstood words of the Apostles’Creed are: “He descended into hell.” In this ancient statement of what the church and believers believe, we say that Jesus Christ suffered, was crucified, that he died and was buried, that he descended into hell. Then we go on to say that he arose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. A quick read will lead the reader to conclude that between his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ spent some time in hell, the place of eternal punishment.
Did he? Did the Lord Jesus, after he gave up his spirit, go to hell until Easter morning? We know that his body was buried in a tomb. But where did his soul, his spirit go? Did it go to hell? Did it go to that place described in the Bible as the lake of fire, as the outer darkness – the place of eternal torment of all those who hate God?
No, the soul of Jesus Christ did not go to the place of eternal torment between Friday evening and Sunday morning. Several of the things Christ said on the cross prove that conclusively.
Towards the end, Jesus said, “It is finished.” His payment for the sin of man was finished. If it was finished, why would he need to go to the place of eternal torment? If he did, in fact, go to the place of everlasting punishment, even just for a little longer than a day, we could only conclude that “it” was not finished on the cross. Obviously, more suffering was required.
His promise to the one criminal crucified with him also proves that he did not, upon death, go to hell. To the criminal who repented and asked Christ to remember him when he came into his kingdom, Christ said, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Not tomorrow or the day after or sometime in the future, but “today.” Both Jesus and the criminal died on Friday. And on that very day they were together in paradise, in the heavenly kingdom.
Just before he died, Christ said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” If he needed to go to hell to suffer there in the spirit yet for a day or so, he would not have been able to commit his spirit into the Father’s hands. His spirit would have been committed into the hands of the devil.
These three words of Christ on the cross prove that Jesus did not go to hell, the place of eternal punishment, after he died; rather, while his body went into the grave, his soul went to the Father in heaven.
Why, then, does the church say in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell?” What is the meaning of this article of faith?
It does not refer to something that Christ endured after he died; rather, it refers to the “anguish, pain, terror and agony, which he endured throughout all his sufferings, but especially on the cross” (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 44). The life of Christ was a steady descent into hell. He suffered the depths of hellish agony on the cross. For what is the essential thing about hell? Surely it is God-forsakeness. God the Father forsook his Son on the cross. The most heart rending words Jesus spoke on the cross – the most heart-breaking words spoken in the history of mankind – were, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” While Jesus Christ hung on the cross, the whole land was plunged into darkness for three hours from noon until midafternoon. God withdrew the gift of light from his Son. He who once said, “Let there be light!” made it dark. In that darkness, Christ knew that he was utterly forsaken. God the Father had abandoned him. “He descended into hell.”
To be forsaken by God is the essential thing about hell. There is no doubt that hell is a place in God’s universe. Some of the mainline churches have worked the doctrine of hell out of their theology and confession. They put Satan on the unemployed list. A church can only come to this conclusion as it closes the Bible. The Lord Jesus warned us about hell. He said that it is the place of unquenchable fire. Hell is also referred to as the outer darkness, the bottomless pit, the lake of fire and sulphur, and the second death. The Bible uses different images to describe hell. The images are powerful and inspire fear. The worst thing about hell, though, is not the fire or the darkness. The worst thing about hell is being forsaken by God. The most frightening aspect of hell is being left, for eternity, to yourself. The man who wanted nothing to do with God gets his wish. He is left to his own devices, forever. Recall back to when you, as a child, were lost for a half hour. The feeling of abandonment is still vivid. Amplify that feeling infinitely, and perhaps you can just begin to get the first inklings of what it would mean to be abandoned by God in hell forever.
Christ suffered under the wrath of God against the sin of man the whole time he lived on earth, but especially on the cross. The good news is that whoever believes in him will not be cast into hell but will, instead, receive eternal life. That’s the good news of Good Friday and of Easter Sunday. We are free! Free from the curse of God and received back into the Father’s favour.