What Does "He Descended into Hell" Mean?
September 12, 2023, 2:12 PM

Question: In Heidelberg Catechism Q44, we’re asked “Why is it added ‘He descended into hell?’” Some Christians believe that Jesus went to a place. Is hell a place? Would you please explain?

Answer: This is an age-old question. The phrase, “He descended into hell,” has been a problematic for Christians for a very long time.

Some of the problems surrounding the phrase include: (1) How one interprets “hell;” (2) how this has been variously understood even within Reformed circles, much less Christianity as a whole; (3) the fact that this phrase is not found in the earliest forms of the Creed. I personally know some Christians who, when the Apostles’ Creed (hereafter referred to as the “Creed”) is recited in church, will not confess that phrase. A couple of things we can say by way of introduction. First, the Creed is not “inspired,” nor was it composed by the Apostles. It is a useful tool that summarizes the essence of the Apostles’ teaching. Second, I’m not going to give a defense of why I feel this phrase is not only part of the Creed, but also worthy of being confessed by the church. Others have done that far better than I ever could.[1] In what follows, I will give you some historic interpretations of this phrase, followed by what I believe the phrase means.

Much of the information I will be providing is summarized from Louis Berkhof’s classic work Systematic Theology.[2] As noted earlier, the phrase “He descended into hell” is not included in the earliest versions of the Creed. Berkhof notes that it was first included in the “Aquileian form of the Creed (c. 390 A.D.), descendit in inferna.”[3] Berkhof goes on to note that the words of this phrase “are not found in Scripture and are not based on such direct statements of the Bible as the rest of the articles of the Creed.” This explains why this phrase is so controversial.

How have different traditions interpreted this phrase? Berkhof summarizes four different interpretations. First is the Roman Catholic (RC) understanding. The RC Church teaches that “He descended into hell” means Jesus entered the Limbus Patrum (the “Father’s Limbo”) where the OT saints reside and “preached the gospel to them and brought them out to heaven.” The Lutheran understanding of the phrase is Christ’s descent into hell is the first stage of His exaltation where He goes into the underworld and proclaims His victory over Satan and the forces of darkness. The Anglican Church sees this phrase as teaching while Christ’s body lay in the grave, His soul went into paradise and gave the souls of the righteous a fuller expression of the truth. John Calvin, the “father” of the Reformed tradition, understood this phrase metaphorically “as referring to the penal sufferings of Christ on the cross, where He really suffered the pangs of hell” (Berkhof).

This is picked up in Q44 of the Heidelberg Catechism when it answers the question thusly, “That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross, and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.” The Westminster Larger Catechism teaches something similar in its answer to Q50: “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” Both the Heidelberg and the Westminster Catechisms are expressing the metaphorical understanding of the phrase that Calvin was teaching.

Now you also asked, “is hell a place?” Let’s look at that now. According to the Authorized Version (the King James Bible), the English word “hell” is used to translate the Hebrew word “sheol” in the OT and the Greek words “hades” and “Gehenna” in the NT. Both sheol and hades are words that refer to the “abode of the dead,” or the grave. The word Gehenna is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew for the valley of Hinnom where there was a garbage dump. Jesus used this in the Gospels (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:5, 33) as a picture of final judgment, or the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20; 20:14-15), because the fires of the dump burned continually. In our day and age, we often use the word “hell” in that second sense (i.e., final judgment, Lake of Fire). That’s why most modern English translations of the Bible simply transliterate “Sheol” or “Hades” instead of translating those words into the word “hell.”

But “is hell a place?” Hell is a place in just the same way as the New Heavens and the New Earth are a place. They aren’t places that we can find in this age, this world, but they are realities of the age to come at the consummation of all things. Hell is the place of eternal, conscious torment as the wicked of this age who died in their sin will face the judgment their sins incurred. But when the Creed says, “He descended into hell,” we aren’t to think that Jesus literally went to the place of eternal, conscious torment. Rather, He suffered the torments of hell while on the cross as He was bearing the wrath of Almighty God for our sin. Furthermore, He did descend into Hades, or the grave, and was “under the power of death” until the third day. The good news is that Jesus did all of this for us. I love the way the Heidelberg Catechism puts it: “That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross, and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.” The phrase “He descended into hell” is meant to comfort us in our times of temptation and assure us that we belong to Christ “body and soul, both in life and in death.”

I hope this helps.

~ Pastor Carl


[2] Berkhof, L. (2021). Systematic Theology. Banner of Truth Trust, pp. 345-47.

[3] Descendit in inferna is Latin for “He descended into hell.” According to the Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary, “inferna” means “lower, infernal.” It’s used to represent the Greek word hades.

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