The Apostles Creed 11: He Descended Into Hades

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Introduction:

And so now we come to an odd one, one which reveals a fairly large gap in cosmology between a child of the biblical era and a child of the modern era. It is also a testing point, sometimes, for the most stalwart inerrantist. Wait, what? You think that an actual star came down and picked out a house in Bethlehem for the magi? And all God’s people, along with our Christmas cards, said, yup.

Cosmology answers the question of what kind of world you assume yourself to be living in. Is the cosmos mostly empty space, punctuated here and there by fiery gases and jagged pieces of black rock? And with our miniscule lives tucked away in some miniscule corner of it? Or is the whole thing an intricately designed artifact, one that fits easily in the palm of God’s hand?

The Text:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord.  He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the virgin, Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into Hades.  On the third day He rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Summary of the Text:

“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).

Jesus knew that He would die and go to Sheol/Hades (Ps. 16:10). He also knew that He would be there for a brief time. It would be sometime less than four days—Lazarus began to see corruption after four days (John 11:39), and the psalm promises that He would not see corruption. And the episode with Jonah told Him exactly how long it would be. He knew on the strength of Psalm 16 that He would not be abandoned there. Peter, preaching on the day of Pentecost, quoted Psalm 16 as a proof of the resurrection. “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell [Hades, translating the OT Sheol], neither his flesh did see corruption” (Acts 2:31). Not only was this a prediction of a resurrection, but of a resurrection after a comparatively brief time in the grave. The Christ was to be in Sheol/Hades, but not for very long.

Distinguishing Some Terms:

The final judgment, the eternal lake of fire, is what Jesus called Gehenna. But this is different from Hades, which should be understood as the intermediate place of departed spirits. The Old Testament name for this place was Sheol. We must distinguish Sheol/Hades from Hell proper because John tells us that death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). The thing you put into a box is distinct from the box.

Now we are sometimes thrown off because many translations of the Apostles Creed say, “He descended into hell.” The problem with this is that the Lord did not descend into the lake of fire, into a place of torment, into what we understand as Hell. The Apostles Creed was originally written in Greek, and the word at this place is Hades, not Gehenna. The confusion (in English) occurred because Hel was the name of the Norse goddess who ruled over a Hades-like underworld. In other words, our word Hell used to mean something more like Hades. And now it doesn’t—which is why we make a point to say Hades in our use of the Creed.

Symbolism . . .

In Scripture, the ultimate description of the final things is given to us in symbolic language. But do not play with this like a liberal. Liberals say that something is “symbolic” as a coping mechanism, trying to get the reality being represented to somehow go away. But what is greater, the symbol or the reality being pictured? Which is greater, the ring or the marriage? Which is greater, the flag or the country it represents? So if the lake of fire is literal, it is obviously really bad. And if it is figurative, then it is actually far, far worse. “And when we say it is a lake of fire, we have reached the limits of human language . . .”Liberals say that something is “symbolic” as a coping mechanism.

The word Gehenna comes to us from the Valley of Ben Hinnom outside Jerusalem. The “Valley of the Son of Hinnom” (Gei ben Hinnom, Josh. 15:8) naturally collapsed over time into Gehenna. It is where children had been sacrificed to Molech (Jer. 7:31, 32; 19: 2, 6; 32: 35). King Josiah stopped the vile practice, and once desecrated it became a dump, the landfill, where fires were constantly burning (Is. 66:24), and where worms never went extinct. Now the ultimate Hell is obviously not located on the south side of Jerusalem—this is figurative language, but remember what we said just a few moments ago.

In the Old Testament Era . . .

In the time before the Messiah came, the expectation of the godly was to die and go to Sheol. Jonah (most likely) actually died and cried out to God from the depths of Sheol (Jon. 2:1). The psalmist expected that Sheol would swallow him up (Ps. 18:5; 86:13; 116:3).

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, they both died and went down to Hades. In that parable, Hades was divided in two by a vast chasm. The side where Lazarus was had the name of Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:23), while the rich man was in torment in Hades. Nevertheless, it was possible for communication to occur across the chasm.

In our text, Jesus said that He was going to be three days and nights in the heart of the earth. But He also told the thief on the cross that He would be with him in Paradise that same day (Luke 23:43). So then, Abraham’s bosom was also known as Paradise. To the Greeks, this went by the name of Elysium. This is where Jesus went, and preached across the chasm.

The Greek word for the lowest pit of Hades, the worst part, was Tartarus. This word is used once in the New Testament (without any redefinition, mind). Peter tells us this: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [Tartarus], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).

What Did the Lord Do While There?

While in Hades, the Lord preached. But the preaching was not “second chance” preaching. Rather the word used is one used for heralding or announcing, not the word for preaching the gospel. “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Pet. 3:19–20). The Lord was announcing their final defeat to the “sons of God” and Nephilim both. And this, incidentally, tells us how momentous the rebellion at the time of the Flood actually was. Thousands of years after their definitive defeat, Jesus went to them to announce their final defeat.

He Holds All the Keys:

The Bible teaches us that Jesus is the king of all things. The devil is not the ruler of Gehenna—Jesus is. The lake of fire was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). It is a place of torment for the devil. Furthermore, Jesus holds the keys to Hades as well. “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell [Hades] and of death.” (Rev. 1:18). Jesus, not the devil, is the King of Hell. Jesus, not the devil, is the Lord of Hades.

When the Lord rose from the dead, He led captivity captive (Eph. 4:8)—all the saints in the Old Testament who had died and gone to Abraham’s bosom were transferred when Paradise was moved (Matt. 27:52). And by the time of Paul, Paradise was up (2 Cor. 12:4). So if you had lived in the Old Testament, you would have died and gone down to Sheol/Hades. But the part of Hades that contained the saints of God has been emptied out, and now when God’s people die, what happens? To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6, 8). We still go to Paradise, but Paradise itself has been moved into the heavens.

That at the Name of Jesus:

And so we preach Jesus, King of Heaven, and Lord of Hades. Hades is the place where He emptied out Paradise, and Hades is the place He will throw into the lake of fire. He is the king, I tell you. And so we proclaim Him, such that at the name of Jesus every knee might bow, whether in Heaven, or on earth, or under the earth (Phil. 2:10).

Paradise is not the New Jerusalem because the New Jerusalem is a glorious figure of the Christian Church. “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). As the saints of God are in Paradise, so also the New Jerusalem is in Paradise.

And Jesus is Lord over all of it.

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Melody
Melody
4 years ago

Thank you for increasing my understanding.

MeMe
4 years ago

This was well done. Good job.

Lloyd
4 years ago

Thanks for touching on this “odd one.”

bethyada
bethyada
4 years ago

This is pretty much my understanding of Hades and Hell. A few clarifications and questions. Sheol in the OT seems less defined. All went to Sheol (save Elijah and Enoch) but the hope was to avoid the pit. It is not clear that the pit was distinct from Sheol or part of it from my reading. Does Sheol correspond to Paradise plus the pit or just Paradise? Possibly the former. I think we should keep Hades in NT translations and I suggest we should actually use Hades for Sheol in the OT (with a footnote) to help with continuity of… Read more »

demosthenes1d
demosthenes1d
4 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

Sheol in the OT usually seems to be just the grave. There is no work, thought, knowledge, or wisdom there (Ecc 9:10), and it seems to be a place to be avoided in general in the psalms. As you say, a sense of an afterlife beyond a vague hope of ressurection, is poorly formed in the OT.

bethyada
bethyada
4 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

That the ancients did not fully understand Sheol does not mean that we can’t understand it better.

The OT may lack in-depth teaching, it does not give false teaching.

demosthenes1d
demosthenes1d
4 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

I dont believe at all that the OT is giving false teaching, just that it doesn’t provide us with a dogmatic vision and it doesn’t support a lot of the speculative takes on sheol I have seen. Several places in the OT Sheol appears to be a place of no consciousness – I find that interesting.

Katecho
Katecho
4 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

Which other places? The Ecclesiastes reference could be understood as speaking in its recurring “under the sun” context — as Sheol being cut off from any knowledge or awareness of what continues to go on “under the Sun”.

Katecho
Katecho
4 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

“Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another. My heart faints within me!” — Job 19:26-27

Seems that some very clear and explicit cornerstakes are driven down by that one passage alone.

Kira
Kira
4 years ago

Never heard Matt 27 explained like that – makes sense, but just wondering if there’s other resources I can read up on this?

Phil Nicholas
Phil Nicholas
4 years ago

Wow. Absolutely wow. This is one of the best, most informative posts I’ve read in a long time. Oh how I wish this was common knowledge. You could be a Christians for decades and not hear this fully explained in most churches. God bless you, Pastor Wilson, for publishing this must-bookmark article.

Clayvessel
Clayvessel
4 years ago

“In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, they both died and went down to Hades. In that parable, Hades was divided in two by a vast chasm. The side where Lazarus was had the name of Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:23Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)), while the rich man was in torment in Hades. Nevertheless, it was possible for communication to occur across the chasm.” I’d like to know where this idea comes from- That they both went to Hades which was divided in two? And not simply Lazarus in heaven with Abraham and the rich man… Read more »

bethyada
bethyada
4 years ago
Reply to  Clayvessel

See example of Isaac (and Samuel) who go to Sheol which is translated Hades in the Greek OT. Hades in the parable has the restricted meaning of the unpleasant aspect of Hades, not the broader place of the death.

Not purgatory, but a waiting room. Hades and its inhabitants will be cast into the lake of fire.

Clayvessel
Clayvessel
4 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

But DW says here that Hades is divided in two and both the rich man and Lazarus are in Hades, though different parts. Where does this come from?

Clayvessel
Clayvessel
4 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

And to combine what you say here that the inhabitants of Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire, and what DW says, that Lazarus was in a part of Hades, then Lazarus would be cast in the Lake of Fire. Someone (or both of you) is wrong.

bethyada
bethyada
4 years ago
Reply to  Clayvessel

You may have missed this?

When the Lord rose from the dead, He led captivity captive

The righteous were removed from Hades at the ascension of Christ.

But regardless of when they leave, they leave before Hades is cast into the Lake of Fire.

Collin
Collin
4 years ago

Pastor Wilson, I assume you realize that your interpretation goes against the traditional Reformed view. Could you comment on this and point out precisely where the Reformers’ interpretation goes wrong?

Kilgore T. Durden
Kilgore T. Durden
4 years ago
Reply to  Collin

Care to explain where the good Reverend diverges from the reformed tradition?

Collin
Collin
4 years ago

The OT saints went to Heaven just as the NT saints do. The Reformed view of the descent is that Christ descended into the pains of Hell on the cross, bearing our deserved punishment.

demosthenes1d
demosthenes1d
4 years ago

Calvin wrote a fairly extensive treatment of this in the institutes.

An excerpt:

“If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. “