Did Christ descend to hell? In an earlier post I opened a can of worms by looking at this topic. The Apostles Creed says he did…or, at least, some versions of that creed say as much. Obviously, the topic is considered by many to be a doctrine near and dear to their faith. But is it warranted by Scripture? After all, the word of God must be the ultimate and final authority in all things, especially subjects that are concerned with the Christian faith.
Francis Turretin, probably the greatest Reformed systematic theologian of the 17th century denies the belief that Jesus went to hell. Instead, he affirms that the soul of Christ, after separating from the body, went immediately to paradise (1).
This is the reverse of the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches (to this day) that Christ descended to hell. The Roman Catechism, published in 1566, states, ‘Christ now being dead, his soul descended into hell, and remained there just as long as his body was in the sepulcher.’ To make the point perfectly clear, it further states, ‘It is to be entirely believed that the soul itself really and by presence descended into hell’ (2).
Lutherans agree with this statement, but stress the fact that the descent isn’t part of Christ’s humiliation; it exhibits, rather, his triumph over hell.
In one section of his monumental work, The Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Turretin turns his attention to this doctrine and provides a detailed argument against the idea that Christ descended to hell. In what follows I’m highlighting some, but not all, of his points.
1. Turretin points out that the earliest forms of the Apostles Creed do not include the phrase, ‘…and descended to hell’ (3). Not only is this phrase missing from the earliest forms of that creed, but it’s also absent from the Nicene Creed. Some foundational leaders of the early church don’t mention the descent either; they include Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine. Cyril of Alexandria summarizes the belief of many church fathers when he writes, ‘The innocent above, the guilty below; the innocent in heaven, the guilty in the abyss; the innocent in the hand of God, the guilty in the hand of the devil.’
2. Turretin affirms that Jesus went immediately to Paradise after his soul separated from the body. On the cross, Jesus promised the one thief, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23.43). Turretin states that in this instance ‘today’ means the very day on which Christ made the promise. No delay is indicated. So, when Christ promised that the thief will be in paradise with him, he meant the literal day on which he spoke. Darrell Bock says that by saying ‘today,’ Jesus is not indicating the unspecified future, but the immediate present (4). There won’t be any lapse in time, that is, between the separation of the soul from the body and the entry of the soul into Paradise. The move from one state to the other will be instantaneous.
3. Next, Turretin builds the case for Christ’s human soul going immediately to Paradise. According to the Roman Catechism, it was his human soul that descended to hell. But Turretin draws attention to the fact that Christ commended his soul to his Father (Luke 23.46) (5). How could he commend his human soul to the Father, who is in heaven, if it was scheduled to spend three days in hell? (6). Obviously, it is impossible for his humanity to be with the Father and in hell at the same time.
4. Finally, Turretin states, Christ accomplished all aspects of his atoning work on the cross; there was nothing more to be done following his cross-work. This is indicated by his statement, ‘It is finished’ (John 19.30). Yet the doctrine of the descent to hell asserts that more work was still to be done after the cross—namely, there was another job to be done which involved going to hell. Among those who hold to the doctrine of Christ’s descent to hell there are different thoughts as to what job it was that still needed to be done. Of those who believe the doctrine, some maintain that Christ went to hell to put to shame unbelievers, others think he went to liberate Old Testament saints (8). But the phrase, ‘It is finished,’ which Jesus spoke on the cross, is a translation of the original Greek word tetelestai which denotes ‘the perfect completion of the whole prophetic image.’ In other words, with his statement, ‘It is finished,’ Christ was saying that his work on the cross was fully and completely done. There were no loose ends still needing to be tied-up. No job needed his further attention or effort. Surely if still more work needed to be done, Christ would not have expressed himself in the perfect tense. He would have said, ‘It is almost finished,’ or ‘It is nearly done,’ or words to that effect. A paraphrase of the perfect tense would be, ‘It is totally done.’ By expressing himself in the perfect tense, he was indicating that all of his work on the cross was finished. He didn’t need to descend to hell to finish one last job.
1. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, 13th Topic, 15th Question, p. 356.
2. Catechism of Council of Trent, Art. 5 [translated by J. A. McHugh, 1923], pp. 62 and 64. This catechism was written in 1566 in response to the growing influence of Protestant catechisms.
3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol III, p. 413, states that it is impossible to determine precisely when the term first appeared based on existing textual evidence.
4. Luke, Vol. 2, p. 1857.
5. Soul and Spirit are often interchangeable in the Bible. However, there are distinctions between the two. But is this an instance when the distinction is in effect? Turretin would answer, ‘no.’
6. By stressing that it was Christ’s human soul that went to Paradise, Turretin is trying to clarify a subtler problem of a more theological nature. Christians had been asking the question, which part of Christ’s nature went to Paradise? Was it his divine nature or his human nature? This is not splitting hairs. Rather, this question goes to the heart of Christ’s true nature. It is, therefore, a Christological question, having to do with the nature and reality of Christ. Both the Roman Catholic Church and all Protestants share a common belief that Jesus Christ is the God-man. That is, two natures—the divine and the human—are united in one person, Jesus Christ. These natures are not mingled or confused. They remain distinct. Yet they are united in one person. This teaching was accepted as orthodox by the Council or Chalcedon which, as I’ve said, both Roman Catholics and Protestants adhere to.
7. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second Edition, 339. These are the two most common teachings, others also exist.