One question that has long plagued Christians about the nature of Jesus’ saving work is that which concerns the meaning of the phrase, “He descended into hell”–as found in the Apostle’s Creed. Are we to understand this phrase to mean that the Scriptures teaches us that Jesus actually descended into hell after his death to proclaim His victory over unbelievers or demons? Or, as our Reformed Confessions have intimated, are we to see it as meaning merely that Jesus suffered the pains of hell on the cross for His people as their substitute and/or remained in a state of death for a time until His resurrection?
In His chapter on Christology in Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos sets out various schools of thought and nuanced attempts to explain this phrase among the different ecclesiastical traditions. He explained:
“a) The Roman Catholic view. When His soul was separated from the body, in this soul Christ went to the limbus patrum—that is, the border region of the Fathers, the place where souls who had died previously find themselves. The purpose of His appearance in this place was to bring these souls into heaven. The place of glory could not be open for them previously because the true Christian sacraments, which actually communicate grace, were lacking under the old order. There was at that time no genuine and perfect salvation, and that lack was supplied through the saving act of Christ.
b) The Lutheran view. In the Formula of Concord, this is described as follows (article IX):
“A dispute has arisen among those who have subscribed to the Augsburg Confession concerning this article: When and how did our Lord Jesus Christ, as our catholic faith teaches, descend to hell? Did this occur before or after His death? Further, one has asked whether He descended only according to His soul, or only according to His deity, or actually in body and soul, and whether this occurred spiritually or bodily. Also, it has been disputed whether this article should be reckoned to the suffering or to the glorious triumph of Christ. Now since this article, as also the preceding, can be comprehended neither by our senses nor by our reason, but must be accepted by faith alone, we have unanimously approved that there shall be no dispute concerning this point, but that one shall believe and teach it in all possible simplicity. Let us in this respect follow the godly teaching of Dr. Luther, who in his sermon at Torgau in 1533 has unfolded this article in a most godly manner, cutting off all curious questions and awakening all Christians to the godly simplicity of faith. For it should be enough for us to know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and that by Him we are snatched from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and even from the jaws of hell. But in what way these things have come to pass, let us not ask about that curiously but rather await the knowledge of these things in another world, where not only that mystery but also many other things will be made clear—things that we must simply believe here, things that go beyond the reach of our blind reason.”
This still sounds very modest. In reality, however, what is intended is an “actual, real and supernatural movement” of Christ, “by which having wrestled Himself free from the shackles of death and having again become alive, He went with His entire person to the underworld in order that He might show Himself to the evil spirits and damned men as victor over death” (Hollaz). Christ also preached in hell, but it was not the preaching of the gospel of salvation but rather a legalistic preaching of damnation.
c) The view of Aepinus (1499–1553) and others. According to Aepinus, Christ had traveled to hell really and locally to endure hellish punishments there in our place. This descent had reference only to His soul, as also, for that matter then, the orthodox Lutherans do not appear to want to deny that Christ’s body remained in the grave. With Aepinus, the descent into hell in the strictest sense falls under the humiliation.
d) The view of Ebrard, Schenkel, and many recent theologians. They maintain that Christ went to Sheol to preach the gospel there, not in the Lutheran sense of a preaching of curse, but with the goal of converting the inhabitants of Sheol. Sheol (שׁאוֹל; Greek ᾅδης) is not hell as the place of final damnation but the realm of the dead in which Old Testament believers at one time were gathered with pagans and unbelievers from Israel after their death and in which dead pagans are now located with unbelievers who die among Christians. At present, the doctrine of the so-called probation after death is voiced in this explanation of the descensus.