December 13, 2017 Q & A

Christ’s Descent into Hell


What was Christ doing in the 3-day interim between death and resurrection? I had always been told that he was preaching salvation to captives from the flood. Can you give me the scriptures used to support that or the view that the OPC holds and its supporting arguments?


Thank you for your question. It’s not an easy one to answer. The view that Christ preached to captives from the flood is based upon 1 Pet. 3:18–20, where it says,

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, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

The usual Reformed view is that Christ by his Spirit preached to the antediluvian generation through Noah, a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5). As to why they are called “spirits in prison,” Matthew Henry wrote:

Because they were dead and disembodied when the apostle speaks of them, therefore he properly calls them spirits now in prison; not that they were in prison when Christ preached to them, as the vulgar Latin translation and the popish expositors pretend.

The only authoritative information concerning Christ’s activities during the time his body lay in the tomb would have to come from the Bible, and this is one subject upon which God has chosen not to give revelation. The Apostles Creed has the phrase, “He descended into hell.” What the OPC believes concerning Christ’s descent into hell is stated in the Larger Catechism:

Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

The Heidelberg Catechism (a doctrinal standard of the continental Reformation) has this:

44. Q. Why is there added, He descended into hell?
A. That in my greatest temptations I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself with this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agony in which He was plunged during all His sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

OPC minister G. I. Williamson has written:

There is no phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that has caused so much difficulty as this: ‘He descended into hell.’ Also, there is disagreement as to what the ancient church meant when it included these words in this earliest Christian confession. Yet in spite of the difficulty, the church has never been willing to remove these words. How then shall we understand them? We cannot possibly take these words to mean that Christ, after he died, went to the place where lost men go to suffer forever. We know he did not go there because he told the believing thief who died at his side that he would be with him that very day in paradise (Luke 23:43). The biblical meaning must be that what Christ suffered on the cross was itself a descent into hell. Now at first sight it might seem ridiculous to say that Jesus, in a few hours of suffering, could have experienced hell to the fullest. But remember, he was divine as well as human. Remember, too, that his human nature was sinless. Just imagine how great the suffering must have been for him when he was forsaken by God. Yes, because of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, it was possible for him to suffer the full measure of the infinite wrath and curse of God—what damnation is for the wicked. And because he did, you and I can be sure that God’s justice is fully satisfied, so that we shall escape that damnation. Here is the Christian’s solid basis for hope. (The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide [P&R], 76)



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