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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
Title:Jesus Died and Was Buried, But Did He Descend into Hell?
Text:LD 16 Q&A 44; Luke 23:26-49 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's Suffering

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Pastor Ted Gray
“Jesus Died and Was Buried, But Did He Descend into Hell?”
Luke 23:26-49; HC Q&A 44

Each Sunday evening, we profess that Jesus descended into hell. Those words come right after the statement that Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, a statement that is a clear biblical fact.

When we profess that we believe Jesus was crucified, dead and buried we have volumes of biblical texts telling us that Jesus truly was crucified.  He did die.  He was buried.  But what biblical basis do we have for this next phrase that each week we profess so boldly, “He descended into hell.”?

In actuality, isn’t it true that we have verses in the Bible that would seem to teach just the opposite?  That after Jesus was crucified, dead and buried His spirit - just like that of those who believe in Him - went immediately to heaven?

When the thief on the cross placed his faith in Jesus, Jesus said to him “Today you will be with Me in  paradise.”  He didn’t say, “I’m taking this journey down into hell, but after three days I will see you in heaven.”   Not at all.  Likewise, Jesus called out to His heavenly Father, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (46).

So did Jesus really descend into hell?  We know without any shadow of doubt that Jesus was crucified. No shadow of doubt that He died and was buried.  We know with a joyful certainty that He arose again from the dead. But my question this evening is, "Did He really descend into hell?"

Divergent Views

As you might imagine, the answer to that question depends on who you ask. Most Lutherans would say, most assuredly, Jesus did descend into hell. They would point us to 1 Peter 3:18-20 and explain that those verses are telling us how Jesus announced His victory over Satan to those in hell.  Peter writes:  For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built... (1 Peter 3:18-20).

However, most Reformed theologians would say the key verse in that passage is verse 18: “He was made alive by the Spirit.” They would say, “Peter is speaking about the eternal Christ proclaiming the gospel through His servant Noah, for Noah is described as a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). It is not teaching that Jesus descended into hell to proclaim to the people there his victory over Satan.”

If you were to ask a Roman Catholic about the phrase, “He descended into hell,” you may hear about the Roman Catholic belief in the doctrine of “Limbus Patrum.” That doctrine teaches that there is a place on the border of hell, not hell but not heaven, where the believers from the Old Testament era dwell. They teach that Jesus went to announce His victory and bring those Old Testament believers to heaven. That view falls in with the Roman Catholic view on Purgatory, both views which Protestants understand to be in error.

Another view on the meaning of the phrase “He descended into hell” is view that has gained popularity just recently; it is the view held by those in the “Word of Faith” movement. Two prominent ministers within that movement, Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagland teach that there are some sins that could not be atoned for on the cross, so Jesus had to descend into hell to atone for those sins. Quite obviously, we see that as erroneous thinking as well. The clear teaching of all Scripture is that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins on the cross as He offered Himself as the only acceptable sacrifice for the propitiation, the atonement, of your sins and mine.

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor at First PCA in Jackson, MS, tells how the Presbyterian church he grew up in never had that statement in the creed. When he first heard it in a Protestant church he was taken by surprise because he always had always associated the phrase “He descended into hell” with Roman Catholicism.

I understand why that church, and a number of other Protestant churches, have dropped that phrase from the creed. After all, creeds are not infallible, only the Bible is. But I also have no problem saying the creed with this phrase so long as we understand that Jesus did not literally descend into hell, but rather that He bore all the agony of hell for us on the cross and in His sufferings beforehand. That is the Scriptural view, and also the teaching of the catechism.

We base our belief on these clear teachings of Jesus Himself: “This day you will be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:43). “Father, into your hands I commit My Spirit” (Luke 23:46). “It is finished...” (John 19:30).

We believe that when Jesus breathed His last breath, His soul went into the glory of heaven and His body was laid in the grave until His resurrection on the third day. Although He did not literally descend into hell, we say that phrase knowing that Jesus bore for us all the anguish and torment of hell.

This view was clearly put forth by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and certainly is the view of the Heidelberg Catechism as it asks in Q&A 44, “Why does the creed add: ‘He descended to hell’”?


To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation
that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,
especially on the cross but also earlier,
has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

Sheol and its Translation as Hell

One reason why there have been so many divergent views on what is meant by this phrase, “He descended into hell,” is because translations of the Bible use “hell” in several senses: the grave (Psalm 16:10),  agony – “hell on earth” (Psalm 116:3 KJV), and literal hell (Luke 16:23).

Likewise, the Hebrew word “Sheol” is used in several ways, including references to the grave, the state of death, and to hell. For instance, in our responsive reading of Psalm 16 we read in verse 10, “because You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” The word for grave is "Sheol" as the NIV states in its footnote.  And that is how the ESV, translates the verse by saying, “You will not abandon me to sheol.”  However, the old KJV translated that verse as “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither will Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.”

Because of that translation some people have used Psalm 16:10 as a “proof text” that Jesus descended into hell. But the verse is referring to the grave and the verse is Messianic; it is referring to Jesus. It is used by Peter in his speech at Pentecost (Acts 2:25-28) and by Paul in Acts 13:35 as referring to Christ.  It is telling us that the Father would not abandon His only begotten Son to the grave, but rather, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead.

Another use of the word “hell” in Scripture is to refer to extreme agony. We see that usage more in the old King James version where, as an example, Psalm 116:10 says: The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.

The ESV translates that verse as, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” And the NIV translates it, “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.”

People today often describe great hardships as “hell on earth.”  Little do they know of the intense agony that hell holds for all eternity. The only One who went through “hell on earth” was Jesus. He did so as He bore the full and complete righteous and proper wrath against sin, in His body and soul, as He was forsaken by His Father as He bore the sins of His people on the cross.

A third use of the word “hell” is the most common. Hell most often is used a reference to the place of eternal weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, a place of eternal suffering for all those who have rejected Christ and refused to believe in Him.

In hell there will be degrees of punishment, as Jesus described in Luke 12:47-48, “That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

But Jesus took the full, unmitigated wrath of His Father against the sins of His elect, those who by God’s grace believe in Jesus alone for salvation. He took every blow, every ounce of punishment.  Even in preparation for His death He took all the punishment for sin upon Himself without any easing of the pain.

For example, do you recall how when they offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh (gall), He tasted it with His lips but refused to drink it? (Mark 15:23; Matthew 27:34). But later wine vinegar was offered, and He took it (John 19:29-30; Mark 15:36).

Why was the first refused? The myrrh, or gall, had a medicinal effect. It was used to ease pain, much as we use aspirins today. Jesus refused to ease the pain. He took the most intense punishment possible for the worst sinner – whether the thief on the cross, Saul of Tarsus, or you or me. He took all the punishment for all our sins on Himself, without lessoning that pain of punishment in any way, not even with wine mixed with a little bit of myrrh.

Hell is so terrible, it is often said, because God won’t be in hell. It is true that the love, mercy, grace and goodness of God, all things that people take for granted, even Christians like you and me, these attributes of God won’t be in hell. But Scripture clearly teaches that the wrath of God will be in hell. That is what makes hell so terrible. The wrath of God, which springs from His justice that sin must be punished - His righteous, proper and eternal wrath - will abide on unbelievers forever.

People love to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But often they don’t want to read the context of the chapter because the context deals with condemnation. Verse 18 says, “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” And the closing verse of the third chapter of John teaches: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).

It is that wrath, that punishment of sin, which Jesus bore on the cross for us. It is punctuated by that anguished question – a rhetorical question, one to which Jesus knew the answer from all eternity – “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  He was forsaken in order to bear the full punishment for the sins of the elect, for all those who by grace have faith in Jesus Christ.

Unspeakable Anguish, Pain, and Terror of Soul

The catechism refers to that agony as it describes how Jesus suffered “unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier...”

The passages that it references to His earlier suffering are Matthew 26:36-46 and Luke 22:44, both of which describe the agony of anticipation in the Garden of Gethsemane while His disciples slept. Jesus agonized in prayer, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Matthew 26:39).  And, an angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him. And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:43-44).

We also recognize that during His entire life Jesus suffered “unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul.”  As one writer put it, the cross and the manger stand side by side. In other words, ever since His birth Jesus knew that the purpose of His birth on earth was to suffer unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul on the cross as He bore the unmitigated wrath of God against our sins.

We have all had appointments that we don’t want to keep. Those who have surgeries scheduled, or other unpleasant medical procedures, have the thought of that surgery or procedure in the back of their mind. It hangs over one’s head.  It pops up in the thought processes even when talking about other things, pleasant things with friends and family.  Was it any different with Jesus, who is like us in every way except for sin (Hebrews 4:15)? As the catechism points out, His whole life was a life of “unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul...”

Christ has Delivered Us from the Anguish and Torment of Hell

And then also, because the Heidelberg Catechism is so personal, it brings up the suffering of Christ in relation to our struggles, troubles, and temptations.  It says: “In times of personal crises and temptation” we are assured that Christ “has delivered (us) from the anguish and torment of hell.”

Decades ago, I saw a caption in a magazine for ministers. It was drawn like a cartoon, but it contained a serious and very comforting message that has stuck in my mind over the years. The caption was of an anguished man on his knees, pleading with the Lord, “Forgive me, forgive me, O please, Lord, forgive me.”  And in the next caption a minister is putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, and he says, “Son, I think He heard you the first time.”

Whenever we sin we are to confess our sins, so we ask for forgiveness every day.  But when we do so we understand that Jesus is the sympathetic High Priest through whom we pray.  He has been tempted in every way as we are, the Scripture assures us (Hebrews 4:15), yet He is without sin.  In other words, He hasn’t faced just some of your temptations and mine, but all of them. And now He ever lives to intercede for you and for me so that we are saved to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25).

And part of His intercession is pointing to His finished work on the cross. He intercedes for us by saying to His Father, “I paid for these sins already. I bore the agony of hell so that those who believe in Me will never experience the pain of hell. I bore the curse of sin so that they might taste the glory of heaven. I overcame temptation and the power of the evil one, so that when they succumb, and confess their sin, they are forgiven.”

Because Christ bore all the agony of hell for us, on the cross, and also earlier, we can, in the words of the catechism  “In times of personal crises and temptation”  be assured that Christ “has delivered (us) from the anguish and torment of hell.”

That is truly blessed assurance!  May the assurance that Christ bore all the agony of hell in your place and mine be of great comfort for you and for me, this week and always, as we look ahead to the glory of being with Him who suffered unspeakable anguish - even all the agony of hell -  on our behalf.  Amen!

                                   - Bulletin Outline -
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit
My spirit.” When He had said this, He breathed His last. - Luke 23:46
        “Jesus Died and Was Buried, But Did He Descend into Hell?”
                                      Luke 23:26-49; HC Q&A 44
I. In the Apostles’ Creed we state that “He (Jesus) descended into hell,”
   yet Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in
    paradise” (43). And, to His heavenly Father, He said, “Father, into Your
    hands I commit my spirit” (46). So did Jesus descend into hell?
    1) Divergent views:
        a) The Lutheran belief based on 1 Peter 3:18-20
        b) The Roman Catholic belief in the doctrine of “Limbus Patrum”
         c) The Word of Faith view of further atonement
    2) The Reformed view: Jesus bore for us all the anguish and torment
        of hell, but He did not literally descend into hell (Luke 23:43, 46; John 19:30)
II. Applications (Q&A 44):
    1) The Bible uses the word for "hell" in several senses: the grave
         (Psalm 16:10 KJV), agony – “hell on earth” (Psalm 116:3 KJV);
         literal hell (Luke 16:23)
     2) Jesus suffered the pain of hell as He suffered “unspeakable anguish,
         pain, and terror ofsoul, especially on the cross but also earlier...”
         (Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:44)
     3) “In times of personal crises and temptation” we are assured that
          Christ “has delivered (us) from the anguish and torment of hell”
          (Matthew 27:45-46; 23:43)





* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2014, Rev. Ted Gray

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