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He Descended Into Hell

April 24, 2011

Every Lord’s Day as the saints gather for worship we have the pleasure of reciting the historic Apostles Creed together. For me it is with anticipation I welcome this time of confessing our common faith together.  As we read, I am always drawn to the words “…he descended into hell.”

No words of the creed have engender more discussion and even disagreement.  Some Christians have suggested omitting it.  Other have suggested changing the order in which it appears in the creed, having the creed to read: “descended into hell, died, and was buried.”  Yet, the creed reads as it does and with reason.

The line, “he descended into hell” speaks to the torment of Christ, not in body but in soul. The suffering of Christ on behalf of sinners was not just in body, but we must remember that Christ’s suffering for his people was also, and indeed more agonizing, in soul.  Christ as our substitute takes not just stripes upon his back, but also the forsaking and punishment of God in his soul.  This is rightly so because the Bible reminds us that the soul that sins must die (Eze. 18:20). Christ in our place not only experienced the first death, but also, and more importantly, the second death so that we would not have to.

Consider, if Christ only died on the cross the physical death, then his death is of no difference than all others who were crucified.  Painful, humiliating, and disgraceful, but no different.  Yet, we understand that Christ did not just die on the cross as others did. The difference is that he suffered not just the temporal pains in body, but the eternal wrath of God in soul.  And not because of his sins, but because of ours.  Therefore, he descended, in his soul, to the place of the damned – forsaken and condemned by God – so that you and I would not have to be.

Friends, if the Lord should tarry, we all will experience the first death.  It probably will not be the painful, torturous, humiliating death of the crucifixion, yet it still will be death.  However, while the death of our bodies can be expected, the death of the soul is no longer our portion because Christ took that death upon himself.  In doing this, he descended into hell.  Yet the glory of Christ is that the Scriptures promised that God would let his soul remain there.  As the often quoted prophesy proclaims:  “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10; see also Acts 2:27; 13:35). Let us praise God that he not only raised Christ in body, but also in soul. Likewise, because Christ was so raised, we too in body and soul shall be.

Here is an excellent sermon by Dr. John R. DeWitt, former pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC. He explains the importance of understanding why we confess every Lord’s day, “He descended into hell.”

At the end of the sermon Dr. Dewitt quoted the hymn by Thomas Kelly, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”:

Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
‘Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He!
‘Tis the long-expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
By His Son, God now has spoken
Tis the true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear him groaning,
Was there ever grief like his?
Friends thro’ fear his cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress;
Many hands were raised to wound him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
’tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.

Here we have a firm foundation,
Here the refuge of the lost;
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation,
His the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded,
Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded
Who on him their hope have built.

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