iii. of the going down of christ into hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.
What a confusing passage. As the sinless person that Jesus was, how could he go to Hell? It bends our minds in all sorts of contortions to think about this. So, we’ll try to unpack the meaning of this.
The Apostles Creed which is spoken every day in the daily Anglican Prayers and on Baptism Sundays, says this, “he descended to the dead.” Cranmer used the Creeds as authorities so it makes sense that it would be in the Articles.
To echo this, the Anglican Catechism written after the 39 Articles, states in No. 68,
What does the Creed mean by saying that Jesus descended to the dead?
That Jesus descended to the dead means that he truly died and entered the place of the departed.”Christian, No. 68
Much discussion among church leader has happened the years since the Middle Ages, but over time Anglican thought has rested on Ephesians 4:8-9,
“Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?)”
Gerald Bray continues to write in This Faith we Confess that in Medieval times people took 1Peter 3:19, which states, “in which[a] he went and proclaimed[b] to the spirits in prison,” and called it “the harrowing of hell.” But Bray says that Jesus preached, not that they responded. (Bray, Confess, 29). Bray continues to state that there is no evidence of a response from the captives, so Anglicans just take the verse at face value (Bray, Confess, 30). Jesus went to the place of the dead and proclaimed to all those there.
Even C.S. Lewis, in his allegorical book, The Great Divorce, mentions this topic.
“‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is , the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only one has descended into Hell.’
’And will He ever do it again?’
‘It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.’Lewis, Divorce, 139-40
Some people have a hard time justifying the the thought of the torment of hell with a loving God. They seek to soften hell by sometimes saying that people are just gone, or annihilated. Or others believe that hell doesn’t even exist. One cannot say that hell doesn’t even exist because Jesus talks about it. Again, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 talks about the torment of hell. Hell is the place of separation from God. Jesus, after he died, went to that place where, because of the sins of all humanity from the beginning to the end of time. He was separated from God the Father. It is true torment to be separated from our Creator, and I agree with Gerald Bray when he states, “The power of evil would not have been overthrown, or even seriously challenged, had he not taken the fight into the heart of the enemy camp and (as Ephesians 4:8 puts it) [‘led a host of captives]’.” (Bray, Confess, 29)
Praising God, that Jesus suffered for my sin, went to hell, but did not stay there: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol (hell), or let your holy one (Jesus) see corruption. (Psalm 16:9-10)”
He rose again and lives in Glory!
To Be a Christian: an Anglican Catechism. Crossway, 2020.
Bray, Gerald Lewis. The Faith We Confess: an Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles. Latimer Trust, 2009.
Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce: a Dream. Harper One, HarperCollins, 2007.