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From the Confessions: The Apostles' Creed
“He descended into hell.”
Pulling It Together
The Scriptures attest to this event. Peter teaches that Christ “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19). Paul writes, "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [the cross]" (Col 2:15). In Scripture, rulers and authorities and principalities do not refer only to human leaders but angelic beings too (Rom 8:38). Paul also speaks of Jesus descending into the “lower regions of the earth” (Eph 4:9). Graves are only slightly lower than the ground we walk upon. The lower regions are elsewhere—"lower."
Nevertheless, the very idea that Christ descended into hell is resisted by many in the church. They are horrified at the thought of Jesus being in the place of the damned. We should, however, find great comfort and hope that Jesus descended into hell. We celebrate the Ascension; we should observe the “Descension” too. Jesus Christ did descend into hell but it could not hold him. He is Lord over all of creation and this is testimony of that lordship. Hell could not hold him any more than the grave. "This means that he is King and Lord over all that is God’s in heaven, earth, and hell. Hence he can help me and all believers against all troubles and against every adversary and foe." (Luther’s Works, vol 43, p 27) Jesus is Lord over everything, including hell, and being such a great Lord, he is able to protect us from its torments.
"In this Creed the burial and Christ’s descent into hell are distinguished as two different articles, and we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his power" (The Formula of Concord, The Solid Declaration, Art. IX).
It should therefore, comfort instead of trouble us when we confess that Jesus “descended into hell.” The doctrine of descent must be as much a part of our faith as Christ's suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. For without the descent into hell and Christ's exit from the “lower regions,” Christ would not have so completely conquered sin and death. “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor 15:57).
Prayer: Thank you, Jesus, for overcoming sin and death and even hell for me. Amen.
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