Jesus went to hell. That is an astonishing claim, but it is at the heart of the gospel. Literally.
When Peter first preached the gospel, full of the Holy Spirit, he proclaimed, “Jesus of Nazareth…this Jesus…you crucified and killed…God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…For David foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” (the whole text is Acts 2:22-32, quoting Psalm 16). This is the paschal mystery that Christians proclaim. Christ has died and Christ is risen. And in between cross and resurrection, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is Holy Saturday, the day of Christ’s descent into “Hades.”
Most Christians who know anything about church history tend to think that Martin Luther taught a “victorious” interpretation of the descent into hell. This idea comes from Luther’s “Torgau Sermon” which was enshrined at the Formula of Concord as the standardized interpretation of what “he descended into hell” means for Lutheran orthodoxy. This interpretation sees the descent into hell as a simple child-like confession that Jesus literally went down into hell and defeated Satan, conquered hell, and triumphed over dark powers. How he did this doesn’t matter: we just need to relish in the victory.
The fact of the matter is, however, that Luther actually preached a much more radical view than this. Sure, he gave the Torgau sermon later in his life. But the biggest point Luther makes about the descent is not that Jesus triumphed over hell idle and unaffected, but that Jesus defeated hell by suffering hell away.
Christ himself suffered the dread and horror of a distressed conscience that tasted eternal wrath…to be killed and damned, or to be in death and hell…to have the same consciousness as the damned—that is death, that is the descent into hell. (WA 5.603-604).
The biggest point Luther makes about the descent is not that Jesus triumphed over hell idle and unaffected, but that Jesus defeated hell by suffering hell away.
What we have here is a radical claim about the infernal extent to which God has been pleased in Jesus Christ to make his humanity completely continuous with our own. God would rather bind himself to us and to suffer our damnation, to drink the cup of divine wrath to the dregs, in our flesh and on our behalf, than to remain aloof in heaven without us. God has determined that, without us, heaven may as well be hell for him. That is what the cross tells us.
Luther’s point here actually sounds very much like one of my favorite lines from the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44:
Q: Why does the creed add, ‘He descended into hell?’
A: To assure me during my Anfechtungen (‘attacks of deepest dread and temptation’) that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torments.
The word used by these German-speaking Reformed theologians to describe hell as a condition of one’s soul was a favorite word used by Luther to describe so much of his own spiritual temptation, agony, demonic oppression, and sheer emotional despair. Here we have a beautiful ecumenical moment: Luther and Reformed theologians (and, as a Calvin scholar, I would be ardent to add Calvin himself!) all want us to understand that there is no terror, not one ounce of emotional turmoil, despair, fear, agony, doubt, or feeling of God-forsakenness that Jesus Christ has not also felt.
The good news of the gospel is that these feelings are not incommensurate with the righteousness that comes through faith. In fact, Jesus himself demonstrated both fear and faith with his own cry of dereliction: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” When he cries out “why have you forsaken me,” Jesus is joining all of humanity as the leader of our cosmic lament, as the one who can say with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s friends from prison in 1943 “that mistrustful question, ‘Why?’ keeps forming itself on my lips.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 24). But, as Calvin points out, Jesus does this while saying “My God,” in which he is clinging to God, calling God as his own, taking God to himself in a faith that God loves and receives (Institutes, 2.16.10-12).
What does this mean? This means that God now loves us, whose flesh Jesus continues to wear, no less than God loves himself, for Jesus is very God of very God. But the good news keeps getting better. This also means that included in that self-giving love of God are all the feelings of agony and terror that we have ever felt. Our feelings of God-forsakenness do not preclude us from being joined to Jesus Christ and participating in his own adoration of the Father. By his descent into hell, Jesus Christ has demonstrated that faith is not the opposite of doubt: faith is doubt’s presupposition. The goodness of God is big enough to hold both.
Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, has descended into our hell, and he has forged communion with the Father from the depths. All that can be done is done.
This was Luther’s understanding of Christ’s descent into hell (and Calvin’s too). It can be ours today. The good news is ours for the taking. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, has descended into our hell, and he has forged communion with the Father from the depths. All that can be done is done. There is nothing left for us to do but to join Jesus as he continues to lead us out of our hell and into his communion with the Father.
This is a guest post from Preston Hill. Preston is a PhD Candidate in Theology at St Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, having previously completed an MLitt degree in Analytic and Exegetical Theology (summa cum laude) under Alan Torrance and N T Wright. He is researching Christ’s descent into hell in the theology of John Calvin. Preston served as director of the 2019 Theology and Trauma Conference at the University of St Andrews. Preston is discerning a call to ordination in the ACNA and is currently on the teaching faculty at Richmont Graduate University.