Jesus’ descent into hell celebrates the fulfillment of the first gospel promise ever made: Jesus would crush Satan’s head.
We go to church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday—a solemn service followed by a joyful jubilee. We focus our attention on Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rarely do we celebrate Jesus’ descent into hell. Seldom is it mentioned in a sermon or Bible class.
Yet, that event is worthy of our study and praise because it is at the heart of the gospel—the first gospel message that was ever given.
The doctrine explained
“He will crush your head,” God told Satan in Genesis 3:15. The descent into hell celebrates this truth. God marched through the ugly abode of Satan and the angels who joined him in his original rebellion. God rode through the dingy dungeon where those who have followed Satan reside.
In his first letter, Peter focuses on those who followed Satan during the time before the flood, a dark time in history when rejection and rebellion against God prevailed. Because of their unbelief, these people ended up in hell. After Jesus died and came back to life, he descended into hell—not to suffer but to proclaim to these people the truth that the Eden prophecy was now fulfilled.
Remember that Satan is not in control of hell—God is. God rules not only in heaven but also in hell. No one goes to hell without God sending him or her there, and that includes Satan. “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell” (2 Peter 2:4).
Satan is not the warden of hell. He is one of the inmates. Hell is not his hideout. It’s his prison cell. Jesus’ descent into hell affirms this truth. More than that, it affirms the truth that by his death and resurrection, Jesus won the victory over sin, Satan, and eternal death. He paid the price of sin, crushed the head of Satan, and removed the sting of death.
The doctrine misunderstood
Over the centuries there has been some confusion about this doctrine. While the phrase “He descended into hell” is omitted in some early editions of the Apostles’ Creed, it soon became a truth the Christian church confessed.
However, many in the early church understood this phrase differently. They called it the “Harrowing of Hell” and believed Old Testament believers went to a place called the “Limbo of the Fathers.” The thinking was that those people could not go to heaven because Christ had not yet suffered for their sins. The belief was that after his death, Jesus descended into the place of the dead, freed the believers from this holding tank, and took them to heaven.
Satan is powerful—that is true. But Christ is all-powerful.
The confusion surrounding this doctrine continued. Nineteenth-century theologian Charles Hodge wrote that “to be buried, to go down to the grave, to descend into hell are in scriptural language equivalent forms of expression” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, p. 617).
More recently, theologian Wayne Grudem states, “Concerning the doctrinal question of whether Christ did descend into hell after he died, the answer from several passages of Scripture seems clearly to be ‘no’ ” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 594).
Another writer sees the phrase in the creed as merely a symbol conveying the truth that Jesus’ victory over the enemies of man was attained by his suffering (Carl Braaten, Christian Dogmatics, p. 548).
Yet Peter’s words are clear and comforting. He says, “Christ also suffered once for sins in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit, in which he also went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison. These spirits disobeyed long ago, when God’s patience was waiting in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Peter 3:18-20 Evangelical Heritage Version [EHV]).
Two key phrases in these verses are “in flesh” and “in spirit.” The footnote in the EHV states that these phrases refer to Christ’s states of humiliation and exaltation. Christ was put to death “in flesh.” As Paul puts it, “Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Christ was made alive “in spirit.” As the God-man, his spirit never died. But as the victorious and exalted Lord, he came back to life, and body and soul he descended into hell on Easter Sunday to announce his victory to all those ancient, pre-flood inmates who had committed the crime of unbelief.
The doctrine’s significance
But what does all this mean for us today? The doctrine of Jesus’ descent into hell is one more way that God comforts us with the gospel. It assures us Satan has been defeated and has no basis to accuse us. When tempted to sin, we can tell Satan to flee in the name of Christ. Satan is powerful—that is true. But Christ is all-powerful. His descent into hell is proof.
In the world of sports, there are amazing wins and there are blowouts. Amazing wins include those games that come down to the last second. The player sinks a three-pointer at the buzzer. The defense gets a pick six. The batter cranks a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.
Then there are blowouts. The biggest blowout in sports history was a football game that took place on Oct. 7, 1916. The Georgia Tech Engineers beat the Cumberland College Bulldogs by a score of 222 to 0. Apparently, the Engineers ran up the score in response to a 22-0 trouncing by the Bulldogs in a baseball game the previous spring.
Jesus’ victory over Satan was an amazing victory. Anyone witnessing the final events of Jesus’ life would have said that he went down in defeat. Satan convinced one disciple to betray him, another to deny him, and the others to desert him. Jesus died alone, the death of a criminal. Even God forsook him. That looks like a devastating defeat, but it wasn’t. By his death Jesus conquered death. On Easter morning the angels proclaimed the victory, “He is not here; he has risen” (Matthew 28:6).
Jesus’ victory over Satan was also a blowout. Satan never stood a chance. This victory was foretold again and again in the Old Testament. Jesus shared the details with his disciples before it all happened. This was not trash talk, but truth talk. The outcome was assured before the contest even began. That gives us great comfort even today.
There is no Star Wars conflict here, no good against evil struggle. There is only Christ marching through hell. God is still in control even when things seem to be out of control. They seemed to be out of control on the cross. The Son of God, the Lord of all creation, the Creator of heaven and earth, the almighty God, the Prince of peace was dead. Little did the world know that the darkest day in human history was the brightest day in salvation history.
“He will crush your head.” God’s promise to Adam and Eve was now fulfilled. Satan suffered a crushing defeat. We celebrate that truth when we confess, “He descended into hell.”
Author: John Schuetze
Volume 110, Number 04
Issue: April 2023