Fri Mar 6 Q. 65: The Propitiation: Jesus Wrestling Down Hell
65. What is the meaning of the additional clause: “He descended into hell”?
That He not only suffered natural death, which is the separation of the body from the soul, but also that His soul was pierced with amazing anguish, which St. Peter calls the pains of death (Acts 2:24).
It is hard for me to suggest, as some have done, that Calvin, in commenting on this part of the Creed, was offering simply a summary of the meaning of “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Calvin does see a summary, but he also sees “a mystery” contained therein. For in the Institutes he writes,
“If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death…The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man…He had, therefore, to conquer that fear which by nature continually torments and oppresses all mortals. This he could do only by fighting it. Now it will soon be more apparent that his was no common sorrow or one engendered by a light cause. Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.]” (Institutes, II.16.10-11).
However, in setting forth what Calvin actually said, I also do not agree with Calvin or the Creed on the personal descent into hell, for I think the weight of Scripture is against (or at the least, silent on) the Descent. But it is not silent about Christ experiencing the full wrath of God for our sins in our place. For as Paul writes,
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:23-26; cf. Heb 2:17; I Jn 2:2; 4:10).
As the Propitiation, Christ took upon himself the very wrath of God due to us for our sins. In doing so, and then in rising from the dead, he did wrestle down death and hell, being victorious over them. Therefore, his very own, who are elect in him, too escape death and hell because he has stepped into the fight on their behalf – on our behalf! – wrestling down death and hell before they could defeat us.
Beholding the wonder of this atonement, I therefore could not agree more with Calvin—that it would be wise for us to “duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God” (II.16.12).
Recommended for further enjoyment: 1 Peter (TNTC) by Wayne Grudem, in which he gives very lengthy (but easy to follow) discussion on the history of the inclusion of “he descended into hell” into the Creed as he comments on I Pet 3:18-19. The TNTC series, formerly published by Eerdmans, is being republished by InterVarsity. Grudem discusses the same in his Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1995).