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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:In Christ’s Hellish Agony is our Heavenly Benefit
Text:LD 16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's Suffering

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 16:1,5                                                                                

Ps 118:6  [after Nicene Creed]

Reading – Psalm 88

Psalm 139:1,4

Sermon – Lord’s Day 16

Ps 88:1,2,5,8

Hy 16:3,4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters, hell is the place where the wicked are punished by God forever. We know that. And so we ask: Did our Saviour go to hell? Did Jesus descend to the home of unending condemnation? What if He did? And what if He didn’t?

This question has long been debated. And it is debated, especially because of what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed: “He was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell.” So in answer to that question, some would say that it’s simple, it’s right there in our confession of faith: Jesus went to hell, full stop.

A Sunday sermon isn’t the place to deal with all the history and controversy over this phrase. But this is what can say. From Jesus’s own words on the day that He died, we know that He wasn’t about to go to the physical place called hell. Do you remember what He said to the criminal beside him, the man who repented in his final moments? Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” ‘Today,’ He said, not ‘three days from now.’ When Jesus finished his earthly life, He had the conviction that He was going straight to his Father.

This is confirmed by what Jesus says a bit later, just before his death: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When He died, his spirit wasn’t going into the abyss, but He was returning to the Father. That’s because Jesus had done his job on the cross, and He had done it well. There was no need to suffer anymore, but only to be received into glory.

So we don’t accept the notion that Jesus actually descended into hell. But what then, does this article of our creed mean? If Jesus didn’t actually go to hell, in what sense did He visit the place of condemnation? Let us consider this teaching of God’s Word, especially as it is summarized in Q&A 44 of the Catechism,

In Christ’s hellish agony is our heavenly benefit:    

  1. the depth of his suffering
  2. the height of our blessing


1) the depth of his suffering: When we speak about hell, certain images come to mind. We picture fire and flames. We picture a place of imprisonment, like a cave that is deep underground, and people in great anguish. We picture Satan with his pitchfork, keeping cruel watch over all the suffering souls.

Some of these images have their basis in Scripture. Others are the product of the human imagination, picked up by us from cartoons and comics. That’s why it is good for us to look for a moment at how the Bible describes hell.

It’s true that hell is described as a place of fire. In Matthew 25 Jesus told a parable about the final judgment, when the king says to the wicked, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matt 25:41). Fire burns and destroys—yet this fire will never go out, and the condemned will never become ash.

Yet strangely, even while there is fire everywhere, hell is also a place of the terror of darkness: “Throw him outside,” the king will order, “into the darkness.” When we’re young children, we might be scared of the dark because we don’t know what’s around us. And in the darkness of hell, there is despair and pain, for Jesus said that those who are condemned “will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:48).

Even though the Bible gives us a glimpse of what hell is like, with these images and comparisons, there’s still so much we don’t know. Hell is like heaven in this one regard, that we cannot imagine fully what it’ll be like.

About heaven the Catechism says, “[It will be] perfect blessedness, such as no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived—a blessedness in which to praise God forever” (LD 22). But hell too, is beyond our understanding. The Catechism says that its “anguish, pain, terror and agony” are “unspeakable” (Q&A 44). It’s beyond description, a misery for which there are no words.

Unspeakable, for it will be a place apart from God. That’s perhaps the ultimate thing that could be said about hell. That is what makes it so awful and so hopeless: God is not there. Now, when we say that, we should be clear on a few things.

First, it was God who made hell in the first place. Scriptures says that He created it long ago as the prison for those angels who rebelled against him. But then He also intended it as the place where guilty sinners could be punished. For even though God is a merciful Judge, God has the right to condemn those who haven’t accepted the mediating work of Christ. Hell is where God’s justice is worked out. Many people struggle to reconcile eternal punishment with the love of God, but this is God’s perfect truth on display. As has often been said: ‘Sin against God’s infinite holiness requires an infinite punishment.’

And so those who weren’t near God in this life are sent even further from God in the next life. The God whom they once ignored now ignores them. That’s the terrible significance of hell. Though He created it for the cause of his justice, God removes himself! This is said about nowhere else in the entire universe. For God is capable of being everywhere, even everywhere at once. Like David sings with great consolation in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (v 7).

Whatever pain a human might be suffering, and in whatever place he might be troubled, God is there. That is our immense comfort. For humans living on this earth, there is always the possibility of calling out to God, and God coming near in grace in the Lord Jesus. He’s not limited by distance or space in any way.

But listen to how Paul describes the eternal suffering of the wicked, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out of the presence of the Lord and the majesty of his power” (2 Thess 1:9). Sinners without a Saviour will be shut out of God’s presence. God won’t be there to help. He won’t be there to answer prayers. In a similar way, Revelation 22:15 speaks about the unrepentant being ‘outside,’ outside the holy city where the Lord is. They have been excluded from communion with God and his people.

You could say this: When it comes to hell, God ‘limits’ himself. He limits the blessing of his presence, limits the extent of his powerful mercy. And so some will not partake in the joy of celebrating with the King.

How does all this connect to Christ? We’ve already seen that our Lord could not have gone to that place called hell. So it is probably best to understand this phrase in our creed as a summarizing statement; it recaps everything that has been said about Jesus’s suffering. Having reached the end of his journey of humiliation, we look back on his entire life, but especially those last few days, when He was seized, put on trial, and convicted; brutalized and crucified.

About all this suffering, our confession says: ‘That was hell.’ That wasn’t just a hard few days, human pain and distress, even on a severe scale. But here is the nightmare, that Jesus suffered hell on earth. He suffered hell, while still alive! He was beaten with many blows. He was tormented, without mercy. He was swallowed up in the horrible darkness for three long hours. And it was in this suffering that Christ experienced the depths of hell. For God had cut him off. God had forsaken him.

In connection with the deep suffering of Christ, we turn to Psalm 88. This is a hard Psalm—it’s pretty hard to sing, but it’s also hard to understand. For it’s a Psalm filled with terrible grief and anguish. We’re used to our beloved Psalms ending with joy; even the saddest of the Psalms usually conclude on a note of joy. Not Psalm 88, where the pain is relentless, right to the last verse.

Though Jesus didn’t quote from this Psalm during his suffering, we know that all the Psalms speak of him. And Psalm 88 certainly describes his agony. For instance, we know that Jesus fervently prayed to the Father during his suffering. He lifted his voice, like in verse 2, “May my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.” In the garden, on trial, and on the cross, Jesus pleaded, “My soul is full of troubles, my life draws near to the grave” (v 3).

In these events, Jesus saw his own death at hand. This left him in despair: “I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength” (v 4). One of his disciples betrayed him, even ‘the most loyal’ left him. Misery loves company, but Christ had none. He cried, “Loved ones and friends you have put far from me” (v 18).

Alone He would undergo God’s wrath, shouldering the burden of God’s anger against sin: “Your wrath lies heavy upon me” (v 7). We cannot really imagine it, but it was so overwhelming for Christ, almost too much in its intensity: “Your fierce wrath has gone over me; your terrors have cut me off” (v 16).

The worst was still to come. For on the cross, He was forgotten, at the time when any human might finally seek the comforting face of God. Christ mourned, “[I am] like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, and who are cut off from your care” (v 5). This was hell: remembered no more, cut off from God’s care. The LORD “laid [him] in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths” (v 6).

This was like hell, for God was distant. Listen to the desperation of Jesus: “LORD, why do you cast off my soul? Why do you hide your face from me?” (v 14). Hanging on the cross, nearing the end, Christ echoed the words of another Psalm, Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v 1). This was a cry of true despair, one from the very depths of hell.

But God wouldn’t answer. He’d leave him in his suffering, with only the darkness as his friend. That is the place where Christ was abandoned, the pit into which He descended. And that is why our blessing is so sure.


2) the height of our blessing: We’re used to calling the message of Scripture ‘the gospel,’ the ‘good news.’ Yet when it comes to the hellish suffering of Christ, it almost seems we dare not be happy about it. Who could feel good about our Saviour experiencing unspeakable terror?

Yet this is the mystery of the Christian gospel. To our minds, it’s hard to see how such blessing could come from such agony. But this is the perfect way that God chooses to save sinners. It says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Made to be sin, Christ was convicted in our place, suffered and died in our place.

Think here of the Lord’s Supper Form. The Form describes the paradox of our salvation, how in Christ’s suffering there is such blessing for his people. The Form considers how in each moment of Jesus’s last hours on earth there is revealed a new mercy of God. “He was bound that He might free us from our sins. He suffered countless insults that we might never be put to shame.” In short, He was ruined for our restoration!

And then: “On the cross He humbled himself, in body and soul, to the very deepest shame and anguish of hell.” He was forsaken by God, so God will never forsake us. Rejected, so we can be accepted. Because Christ went through hell on earth, we can go to heaven!

When we speak of heaven, we again have certain pictures in our minds: pictures of harps and clouds and pearly gates. But Scripture speaks of heaven in deeper way than we could ever portray. It’s a place of ceaseless worship for God and for the Lamb. Revelation says it’s a place where we’ll serve our God, and even reign with God.

But if there’s one attribute of heaven that’s most important, most amazingly profound, it is this: heaven is the place of unbroken closeness with God. For there we shall walk again with God, without the hindrance of human weakness. There we shall talk with God, without the constant obstacle of our sin. There we shall bask in the full light of the glory of the LORD.

Only through Christ’s hell on earth is this great gift possible. He accepted the sentence for sin, so we can be released from our guilt. His fellowship with God was broken, so our fellowship with God can be restored. Because the Father rejected his only begotten Son, we can be made children of God!

And the best part is this fellowship isn’t something we have to wait for. Eternity is not years and centuries away. Eternal life begins now, when you believe! Listen to what Jesus says in John 5, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life… He has crossed over from death to life” (v 24). Already we have stepped across the divide! There is an unbreakable connection between eternal life here and now, and eternal life in the final sense, for both mean we get to have communion with God, to be with Lord, and rest in him. You can have this gift already today.

Through faith in him, God is our God: no matter who we are; no matter where we are; no matter what we have done. The Catechism puts it this way, “In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ…has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell” (Q&A 44). About none of our trials on this earth can we say, “That was hell,” because God is always there. Even if God feels far away, He is not.

You hear the pastoral voice of the Catechism when it speaks of “sorrows and temptations.” It’s being very real. The sorrows of this broken life are many. And the temptations of life are many. So sometimes believers take Psalm 88 onto their lips, and with good reason. It’s why this Psalm is here, to give words to our hardest sufferings.

For example, the darkness of depression can seem so deep for some. They ask, “If I’m a believer, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. When will I ever be able to climb out of this murky pit? How long until the sun begins to shine?”

Or the despair of anxiety can seem so overwhelming. We ask, “How can I possibly meet all these commitments? How can I ever make it through another day?”

For some believers, the bitterness of loneliness can touch many moments of life, both happy and sad. They ask, “With whom can I share this joy? Who can I turn to in my trouble?”

Besides this, sin’s power seems unrelenting. We ask, “Why can I not escape from the devil’s grip? I try and try but can’t do better. Why doesn’t it get easier?”

Years of unanswered prayer can leave us deflated, and tired, and angry. We ask, “Where is God? Why doesn’t He hear the voice of my crying?”

Christians take this Psalm on their lips as a cry from the depths of human misery. We’re allowed to pray this difficult Psalm, but we must remember how it begins. Somehow it does begin with hope, looking to God, “O LORD, God of my salvation…” To cry out to God from the darkness, even if we have few other words, is an act of faith: ‘O LORD, you are the God of my salvation.’

Remember how the Psalm begins. And remember too, that the Psalm has a new ending in Christ. In Christ, there’s an answer beyond the darkness. Through him, we’re never beyond the reach of God’s fatherly hands. God is present. To lift you up. To guide you. To assure you of mercy. All this is possible, because Christ rescued us from the dominion of darkness, brought us into his own Kingdom.

We’re greatly comforted by Christ’s hellish suffering. We’re also called. For it means we’re done with a hellish way of life. We’re done with a life that is full of Satan’s works. No longer should we speak Satan’s native language: lying and deceit. No more should we imitate the devil’s greatest talents of murder and impurity.

So Christ calls us to put sin away from us. We remember the words of Jesus, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is better that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matt 5:30). Stay out of hell, and live like a citizen of heaven.

We’re not there yet, but we’ve already crossed over! There can be a touch of heaven in how you live today, when you talk to God freely and openly. There can be a touch of heaven today, when you delight in God and live in the knowledge that God is with you always.

Thinking about what Christ had to suffer is another reminder of the seriousness of all sin. It takes hell to pay for it. That exhorts us to put sin away, we said. It should also move us to have a deeper sorrow for those who are lost. So many others are still missing out on this gift. So many around us are headed for condemnation!

Even people that we meet, and work with, and people we know well and care about—for them, as it stands right now, the last day might very well be a day of great terror and anguish. And this should cause us grief. Think of how in Romans 9:2, Paul says that has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart. This is because of how the Jews have not believed. It pained him to think about where they were going if they didn’t believe in Christ.

And if we love our neighbours, it should pain us too. Scripture says that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires that they turn and live. So what Jude says in his letter is fitting. He tells us, “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them” (vv 22-23). Snatch them from the fire!

Let us pray for opportunities to share the love of God in Christ with those around you. Let us pray for more courage to speak, and wisdom, and for words that are seasoned with salt and marked by grace. We have a great Saviour who is worth sharing, worth talking about, worth testifying to. He saved us from hell, and He’ll save all who turn to him in faith!

Let us give all our lives to grasping how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ (cf. Eph 2:18). Yes, how deep is the love of Christ? For us He went all the way to hell. How high is the love of Christ? For us He went all the way to heaven. And now He wants us there with him.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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