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to where did he descend?

During our topical sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we end our gathered assembly by reciting the Creed together. Many of us come from a variety of traditions and in these different traditions the Creed may be recited differently, which has raised this question of the version we use: why does it say Jesus descended to the dead rather than he descended to hell?

The easy—and correct—answer is the Apostles’ Creed, in both Greek and Latin, actually say he descended to the dead, not to the place we know as hell. In both Greek and Latin versions of the Creed, Jesus descended to a people, not a place. It is true they were in a place, but he descended to the people. Even if they were in a place of suffering, the Creed does not declare that he went to the place of suffering, but to the people. But more is going on here.

Part of the difficulty is the imprecision of translation. In the very first English translation (well, Middle English), translated by John Wycliffe (and others) in the late 1300s, the word “hell” appeared 122 times. When the Hebrew word “Sheol” was used, it was usually translated as hell. When the Greek word “Hades” was used, it was usually translated as hell. The problem is the imprecision of these translations, for the English word hell implies a place of torment, whereas neither Sheol nor Hades requires suffering. Compare this to the English Standard Version which translates these words as “hell” just 17 times! It isn’t that the ESV translators didn’t like the word; they were simply being more precise.

In the centuries before Jesus, Jewish thinking recognized at least two different regions of Sheol, one of suffering and torment, and another of bliss and paradise. This is why in Luke 19 Jesus told the story of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man lived in luxury and the poor man lived in want for the rich man had no compassion on him though he was at his gate. Then we read this:

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’”

Luke 16:22–26 ESV

The rich man was in Hades, and in torment, yet he could see Abraham and the poor man who were also in Hades, though in a different region. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek the word they used for “Sheol”—the grave—was Hades. The grave was where people went when they died, awaiting what came next. Those in the region of suffering remained in that region and those in the region of blessing remained in that region, and “a great chasm has been fixed” between the two. By the time of Jesus, the word “gehenna” began to be used for the region of Hades where the unrighteous suffered. This is the word the ESV translates as hell.

The Creed says we believe Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead”. It goes to great lengths here to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ death. To be crucified requires that one dies; it is an accomplished act, yet the Creed adds that he died. Then it says he was buried. Of course! This is what we do with those who die. All of this is to emphasize that he was dead-dead, not just mostly-dead. Then Jesus descended to the dead, to the place of Hades, where all those who had died were. Why?

On Sunday we are looking at this very section of the Creed through Philippians 2:5–11. We will focus less on the suffering, death, and burial of Jesus and more on his ascension into heaven, but what is very interesting in that text is this proclamation:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9–11 ESV

Notice who will bow the knee to the Lord Jesus: those in heaven and on earth and under the earth. When Jesus died and was buried, he went to those under the earth and proclaimed his victory to them. Peter wrote about this in 1 Peter 3. His proclamation to all who had died is that he and he alone is Lord of all. For those who died in unbelief, this was not a proclamation that brought them comfort. To those who died in faith, this was the proclamation that they would soon be ushered into the presence of God. The point is that all will bow the knee to King Jesus, even those who do so unwillingly. For those who gladly bow the knee in this life, everlasting life is theirs in the presence of God. For all others, there is only an eternity of separation from God. This good news Jesus preached during the time he was buried is how we arrive at what is one of my favorite texts in all of Scripture:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:22–24 ESV

This speaks of what happens in the gathered assembly when the church assembles in the name of Jesus. We are transported into the heavenly Jerusalem—that New City!—where the assembly of the firstborn are. These are those who had died in faith to whom Jesus proclaimed his victory and whom Jesus ushered into the presence of God. The spirits of the righteous made perfect are all who die in Christ. But this was a new development!

Some people may scratch their heads and wonder, “Wait…Abraham was in Hades? Wasn’t he in heaven?” The reality is that Jesus had not yet died for the sins of his people. It was at the moment of his death that the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom, thus signifying that direct, immediate access to God was now being granted through Christ. It was when Jesus died for all his people that those who had died in faith could be ushered into the presence of God. The very thing that separated them, the true “great chasm” between God and humans, was bridged by Jesus Christ. Now those who die in faith immediately enter the presence of our holy God.

This is why it is good news that when Jesus descended to the dead he transformed what it even means to die. His resurrection declares that physical death is merely temporary, yet his descent to the dead means that while death remains our enemy, it is an impotent and broken enemy. The worst it can do is wound us. Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead and thus transformed what it even means to die in Christ. This transformation is one from expectation to reality. The people of God had long awaited the coming of the Messiah, the one who would save God’s people. When Jesus descended to the dead he proclaimed that he had come at last and from that moment on, God’s people experience the bodily presence of Jesus, knowing that soon they, too, will be resurrected and will ever be with Jesus. This is the victorious Jesus John saw when Jesus appeared to him to give him the visions contained in the book of Revelation:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

Revelation 1:17–18 ESV

While death continues to wreak havoc in the world, and it ever remains our enemy, we can take great comfort in the victory of Jesus, for he endured death himself, and then entered the very domain of the dead and boldly proclaimed his victory over it. On the third day he walked out of his tomb in a stunning display of his victory. As John saw near the end of Revelation, “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14 ESV).

Whether you find yourself fearing death, or you mourn the loss of a loved one who died in Christ, take comfort, dear believer! Jesus Christ is victorious! He entered the domain of the enemy, and robbed the grave! When death should take you, you will be in the immediate presence of our God who was born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered and died and was buried, who descended to the dead and ushered into God’s presence all those who died in faith. This is good news!