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Catechism Class: LD16 Q44 Did Jesus Visit Hell?


Catechism Class: Lord’s Day 16, Q44 

After his crucifixion, did Jesus visit hell?  And if he did, why?

Lord’s Day 16, Q44, Why is there added: He descended into hell?  The answer we must give is, “In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which he endured throughout all his sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.” 

Jesus has suffered my hell for me, both in his life, and especially when upon the cross.  At the cross, as God poured out upon Him, my deserved punishment, and the punishment for the sins of the whole world, he descended into the depths of hell, for me!  Before we go any further it might be wise to define our terms.  What does the Bible mean when it talks about ‘hell?’  There are three terms used throughout the Scriptures that could be translated ‘hell’:

Gehenna.  The place of the lost, a place of eternal torment, where those who reject the mercy of God in Christ for sinner must spend eternity. 

Sheol.  Used throughout the Old Testament on more than sixty occasions, (mostly rendered hades in the LXX) it can have several meanings, and the specific meaning of the word is probably best determined by the context of the passage in which it occurs.  For example, AV translates it as pit in three instances, hell, in many other places. It can mean:

Hades.  In the New Testament, Sheol is often replaced by the Greek word hades, but the term retains its non-specific characteristics, and close attention to context is still the best hermeneutic.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, (Luke 16) the word hades must mean hell, for it is a place of torment and flame.  Luke 16:23-24  

The meaning of hades is usually made clear by the context of the passage.  Similarly in 1 Corinthians 15:55 the best translation of hades is graveOh death, where is thy sting, oh hades where is thy victory! This is a good principle to apply in every other instance.

There are a number of NT passages that seem to allude to the descensus, for example, 1 Peter 3 & 4., esp. 1 Peter 3:18-22.  Peter is speaking to Christians who are about to face a period of fierce persecution.  He points to the suffering of Christ, which was for us, and he uses an illustration, Noah, who, in the face of fierce opposition preached the gospel, remained faithful and was saved and delivered from God’s judgement.  Despite Noah’s pleas for the people to repent, and to enter the ark, they refused the offer of grace, even though God was patient with them, right throughout the period of construction of the ark.  But note that in that preaching, through the application of the word by the Holy Spirit, Christ Himself was speaking to the disobedient sinful people of Noah’s day.

Why did they not respond to the Gospel?  Because like all men, they are dead in their trespasses and sins.  Instead they were amazed that Noah and his family didn’t join in the debauchery of the age, so they ‘maligned them’ – one can only imagine what that was like!  What did Noah do in response to this persecution and bike accusation?  He continued to preach the word!  He preached to those who were dead.  The situation in Peter’s time would be equally testing for the Christians, but they must continue to be faithful, to preach the gospel, knowing that their salvation has already been assured in Christ, and that He would judge both the living and the dead.  Peter’s phrase ‘preaching to imprisoned spirits’ is simply a reference to Christ, in the Spirit, speaking to sinners through Noah.  

Let’s get back to our catechism. As usual our instructor in the Catechism gives us a balanced, reformed view on this issue.  Once again he points to Christ as our only comfort in life and death, whose suffering and death has fully atoned for all our sins, and who has TAKEN OUR HELL FOR US.   The catechist points out that: 

  • Christ suffered hell in his soul for us!  Our instructor puts it graphically, when he speaks of ‘inexpressible anguish, pains and terrors.’  We might think today of the burden of his soul, the physical pain of the cost, and the spiritual terror of the cross.  That terror is visibly expressed in the complete darkening of the sky, as the sun refused to shine, in the shredding of the temple veil, and spiritually expressed in the Saviour’s words:  Matthew 27:46  It was that awful depth of physical and spiritual pain which was appropriate to atone for the great debt of sin that we owed, and only Jesus, being the Son of God could bear that heavy burden.  
  • That suffering was on the cross, and BEFORE.  In an interesting statement, the catechist adds that his anguish began before the cross.  Historically, Protestants have considered this as a reference to the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:37-39  
  • This gives us assurance. We all face temptations, trials, sicknesses, eventually death, and we do so with calm assurance in the finished work of Christ on the cross.  In his hellish suffering, Jesus has burst the bonds of death and hell for us, and there remains no hell for the believer.  It makes the death of a saint a blessing, not a curse, for in death we follow Christ out of this world and into heaven.  We leave our old body in the grave, and we are kept in the presence of the Saviour until the day of a Glorious Resurrection.

So, in the theology of the reformers, and in line with a proper exegesis of the Bible texts, we are convinced that the ‘descent into hell’ was Christ’s ultimate condescension for mankind, when he died on the cross, forsaken and alone, bearing upon him the dreadful weight of human sin.  He died my death, and he saved me from hell by taking my hell upon himself, and because of that, in the days of my greatest temptation and distress I find amazing strength and  wonderful comfort.

There’s much, much more to this.  Please click the link through to the on-line notes, and read them through.  

© Bob McEvoy February 2022

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