The other day a very good friend who is new to the Christian faith asked me about the words in the Apostles’ Creed. He asked, “Katie- Jesus descended into hell? I don’t think I knew that. What does that mean exactly?”
So what does a preacher’s kid do? Seek out the knowledge of her dad! I asked my dad to explain it because I wasn’t quite confident or sure about the answer I was going to give my friend. As my dad explained what it means when we confess that Jesus “descended into hell,” I realized I had some misconceptions about that phrase as well. Then I thought to myself, I bet a lot of people have a misconception of this phrase. I need to write a blog about this!
What I learned
Many people, myself included, might think that the phrase “Jesus descended into hell” means Jesus went to the place called hell, the devil’s realm, to physically suffer for our sins. However, the teaching of Jesus’ descent into hell is based 1 Peter 3: 18-20:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built…
First, we need to understand WHEN it was that Jesus actually suffered for our sins. The moment Jesus suffered the price of hell for us was when he cried out on the Cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
That was the moment God the Father turned His back on His Son. That was the moment Jesus experienced separation from His Father: His Father’s presence, love, and grace. That is when Jesus suffered a fate we as a believer will never experience in life or death. This was the defining moment when, as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: He who knew no sin became sin that we might become righteous before God.- 2 Corinthians 5:21
We know from Jesus’ last words on the cross that He had completed the purpose for His becoming a man and offering His blood as the payment for our sins. When Jesus said, “It is finished!” he was literally saying, “The debt for sin is paid in full!” Jesus did it all: there is nothing for us to do except receive the blessings of death and resurrection by faith.
So if Jesus suffered the punishment for our sins on the cross why then did he descend into hell? According to Rev. Dr. George Black (my dad), in the ancient Middle East, the belief was that in war, no king defeated his enemy until he actually entered his opponent’s capital. Therefore, for Jesus to clearly show that he had defeated sin, death, and the devil, he had to descend into the devil’s capital. Jesus did this sometime after his burial and before his resurrection.
What was Jesus doing in the devil’s capital?
Because some Bible translations say Jesus went there to “preach,” some people think he went there to preach the Gospel and offer the unbelievers in hell a second chance. But the Greek word used here for “preach” does not mean “to preach the Gospel.” There is another word that would have been used if that were the case. Jesus went there to make a proclamation, to deliver a message. Jesus proclaimed his victory before the very people who denied and rebelled against His Father, who rejected God’s laws, and who chose to follow the wickedness of satan over the glorious will of God.
In 1 Corinthians 15:55-58, St. Paul writes in reference to the resurrection, “Thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our LORD Jesus Christ.” Notice that God has given to us the victory of Jesus. We share in His victory! Through Jesus’ victory we are freed from satan’s power and sin’s influence.
What Jesus’ victory means for us
Through Jesus’ victory, we are freed to live a life of service to God and other people. Jesus’ victory frees us to make a difference in the lives of others as well as in our own life. Jesus frees us to care for others, to put the best construction on what others say and do, and to love others as Jesus loves us. Jesus frees us from our mind weeds to become hopeful, loving and positive in our thinking; Jesus frees us from being selfish to become generous in our treatment of others; and Jesus frees us from being critical of others to become an encourager and cheerleader for others. Jesus frees us to become like Him!
Ladies, let us step out in faith! Jesus’ descent into hell proclaimed to the devil that he is defeated. Go and live your life believing and showing your faith that Jesus has defeated the devil! Live the victory! Share the victory!