Sermon: The Descent to Hell

[This sermon was preached as part of a series on the Apostles’ Creed. It may be helpful to read the creed and the exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism Q44, which were read responsively before the sermon.]

For those of you who are with us for the first time, or the first time in a while, this fall we are exploring the core convictions of the Christian faith. We are using an ancient formula known as the Apostles’ Creed as our guide. The Bible is the final authority for all Christian faith and life, but the creed provides a helpful summary of the core teachings of the Bible.

This morning, we are examining the phrase, ‘and he descended to hell.’ I admit I have been both excited and fearful of coming to this part of the creed. It is the part I found most confusing and challenging. I read a lot this week trying to wrap my mind around what this means. I prayed and talked with Olga and, honestly, struggled quite a bit. But in the end, we need to go back to the basis of all our understanding of God, his will, and his ways. We needed to go back to the Word of God. So as we try to understand the biblical teaching on Christ’s ‘descent into hell,’ I will take a moment to teach about it more generally, but we will spend most of our time examining what we find in God’s word. Particularly, we will be hearing God speak through Matthew, chapter 27, verses 45-54. If you would like, you can turn there with me. Matthew is the first book in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew 27, verses 45-54. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

From noon until three in the afternoon, darkness came over all the land. At about three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

Immediately, one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

For a moment, I want to step outside of the normal preaching mode and do a little bit of teaching about what it means to confess that Jesus Christ ‘decended into hell.’ Then we will shift back to listen to what Scripture proclaims happened in the death of Jesus Christ.

“And he descended to hell”: Two Options

In interpreting the phrase ‘he descended into hell’ there are two main options. The first option I like to call ‘Jailbreak Jesus.’ Various versions of this are held by the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran church. In ‘Jailbreak Jesus,’ after Jesus’ death his body remains in the tomb, but his soul goes down to the abode of the dead. If you grew up reciting the Apostles’ Creed, you may even have said, “and he descended to the dead.’ Depending on the version, this is either a neutral place where all the souls of the dead reside or it is a place where Satan is actively trying to keep the dead. Jesus comes and preaches the gospel to those who have died prior to the coming of Christ – Abraham, Moses, David, etc. Those who receive the gospel are freed from the land of the dead and enter into heaven. Those who do not are left without excuse for rejecting the gospel. I call this ‘Jailbreak Jesus’ because in many versions of this doctrine, Jesus defeats the devil and rescues the souls of the dead from prison.

There is something appealing about this interpretation. It is fairly old, it helps explain what happened between Jesus’ death and his resurrection three days later, and it answers the question of ‘what about the people who died before Jesus came?’ But there is a problem. It is simply not there in the Bible. The few scripture passages cited in favor of this view do not hold up when you take a closer look. So, interesting view, but no real scriptural support.

The other option is this: “Christ descended into hell so that we would not have to go there.” This is a particularly reformed position, though not exclusively. Instead of speculating on where Jesus’ soul went on Holy Saturday, we can say that Jesus experienced hell in our place. Jesus’ life and death for us, in our place, includes suffering the anguish, torment, and horror of hell for us. Jesus ‘suffered, died, and was buried’ in the sight of all people, but he ‘descended to hell’ in the sight of God. In this way, the ‘descent to hell’ is about Jesus’ spiritual condition as he takes on the full weight of God’s curse for us on the cross and in his death. Christ experienced hell so that we would not have to.

The question for this interpretation is the same as “Jailbreak Jesus”: Is it in the Bible? No matter how appealing or coherent or intriguing a teaching is, if it is not rooted in the witness of Scripture, then it is not Christian teaching.

For this reason, I want us to spend some time this morning examining what the Bible teaches about what happened in the death of Jesus Christ. This brings us back to Matthew 27:45-54.

What do we know?

In it, we learn three things about Jesus’ death. Jesus experienced forsakenness upon the cross, his death opened the way into the presence of God, and his death brings life to those once-dead.

First, Jesus experienced forsakenness on the cross. Verse 46: At about three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) As he hangs on the cross in physical agony, Jesus cries out in spiritual anguish with the opening words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus experienced abandonment, forsakenness. As he hung dying on the cross, those closest to him in this world had fled. They had left him alone. But the worst agony was that the did not have even the comfort of his Father in heaven.

Jesus did not just suffer bodily on the cross, but “unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul.” It was not just physical pain that made the cross such a burden, it was the forsakenness. It was not just the physical agony of the kind of death he would die that made Jesus pray in Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” It was also what he would go through – heart and soul – on the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus experienced the absence of the Father’s care and presence on the cross.

This is where his descent to hell began. The curse Jesus bore for us as he was nailed to the cross was not just physical pain and death, but hell itself. Hell as the separation from God, as the place where God can only be experienced as the Adversary, the enemy. “In our place the Christ suffered that situation which ought to have been ours.” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He cried out so that we would never have to say it. “He drank the cup of suffering to the last drop and tasted death in all its bitterness in order to completely deliver us from the fear of death and death itself.” When Jesus bore the weight of our sin, he bore all of its consequences, including hell itself.

But because Jesus was forsaken, because he descended to the depths, because he, the holy one, was made sin for us, something incredible happens. This is the second thing we learn in Matthew 27: Jesus’ death opened the way for us into the presence of God. Verses 50 and 51: And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

We, as sinners, cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. We cannot waltz into the presence of a holy God. God is so holy that for sinners to enter his presence is death. A tall, thick curtain separated the holy of holies from the holy place and the rest of the temple. Not just anyone can enter beyond the curtain into the presence of God. Only the high priest could enter the presence of God. Only once a year, after making a sin offering for himself and the whole people of God could he enter. If the high priest went in whenever he wanted, he would die. We who are so unholy cannot stand in the presence of the Holy One, God himself.

Through his death, Jesus made a way for us to come into his presence. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When God in Jesus Christ took on our unholiness, took on our sins, took on our hellish punishment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. God himself ripped open the curtain. In descending to the depths, Jesus tore open a way for us to enter into the presence of God. Jesus opened a way for us, not through the blood of rams or goats, but through his own blood shed on the cross. 

The physical ripping of the veil symbolized the new and living way that began at the death of Jesus Christ. At the moment of his death, the curtain was torn. At the moment of his death, the way was open. Those who are united with Christ by grace through faith, who have died with Christ, can now stand before God. Because Jesus was killed outside the city, died a cursed death outside the camp, experienced forsakenness by the Father, we can now enter the holy presence of God. Out of the abundance of his love, Jesus made a way where there was no way.

Lastly, we learn that Jesus’ death brought life to the once-dead. Verses 51-53: The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. At the moment Jesus died, an earthquake shook Jerusalem and the dead came to life. When Jesus died, others began to live. At his death, death’s hold broke and, it says, many holy people who had died were raised to life. We are not talking zombies here. I don’t know the mechanics of how all this happened, but we do know this: Jesus’ death brings life to those once dead.

I believe that this mini-resurrection at the death of Jesus points to the deep reality of the significance of the cross. It is a glimpse on the first day of what will happen on the last day. On that first day, the holy ones of old were raised to life. On the last day, all the dead in Christ will rise and be clothed with imperishability, their mortal bodies clothed with immortality and we will dance in the streets of the heavenly city in praise to the eternal and almighty King. It is a preview of things to come.

But it is also a visible testament to the spiritual reality that comes from the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus brings life to the dead. Ephesians 2: And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you used to walk…but God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love for us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses. Jesus brings life to the dead. Through his death, we are brought to life. Because he went to the depths of hellish torment, we enter the joy of heaven.

Christ descent to hell should lead us on mission

Apart from Jesus Christ, this is our story. We are born in sin, we live in sin, we die in sin, and we receive the just punishment for our sin: hell.

In Jesus Christ, this is our story: We are born in sin, we are dead in Christ, we are raised with Christ, we live as both sinner and justified before God, and finally we die and receive, not the just punishment of our sin, but eternal life through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, God himself in the flesh, experienced not just physical pain and death, but hellish anguish on the cross, so that he cried out, My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? He did this for us. “Christ descended into hell so that we would not have to go there.” Christ loved us enough to go to the cross, the question is, “Do we love our neighbors?”

Love drove Jesus to the cross, his love for us, and our love for our neighbor should drive us to share the good news with them. If Jesus descended all the way into hell, experienced what we deserve apart from the saving grace of Christ, then what does it say about our love for our neighbors when we hesitate to tell them about Jesus Christ? I know we don’t want to be pushy, I know we don’t want to offend people, but is it not unloving to leave them not knowing the only one who can bring the dead to life, who can take away our sins, Jesus Christ? How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God.”

Upon seeing what had happened, they said, Surely he was the Son of God. Is that not what we want for our neighbors, our family, our selves? Do we not want people to see Christ crucified in their place and cry out, Surely he was the Son of God?

Who is the one person in your life that needs to know the depths of what Christ endured out of love for us? Do you love them enough to share the only hope we have in life and in death?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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