Article 3: As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.
During a Sunday School class on the 39 Articles, the seminarian teaching the class said that he was surprised when he first learned that some Christian ministers emphatically state that Christ did not go to hell. This generated some conversation, which the seminarian handled confidently until the church’s curate quoted Luke 23:43, “And he said to [the thief], “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”” This stumped the seminarian, but should it have? Jesus Christ going down into hell is in the Apostles Creed, the official doctrinal statement for the Anglican church, and in Peter’s first letter. While Jesus told the thief that they will be in Paradise that day, the notion of Jesus descending into hell cannot be easily dismissed.
Looking at the promise to the thief on the cross, Leo the Great points out that even in the midst of punishment, Jesus Christ displayed his divinity. The promise that he made to the thief “surpasses the human condition, because it did not come so much from the wood of a cross as from a throne of power.” (Sermon 53.1.2)
John Chrysostom and Origen contrasted the flaming sword that guarded the entry into Eden (Paradise) with the cross opening the way for the saints to enter Paradise. The promise made on the cross was fulfilled that same day because through His death, the temple curtain was ripped and the entry into Paradise was opened. When our Lord told the thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise,” this was not just a promise for one person but for all the saints, past and future, and it was accomplished in Christ that day by the God who is over time and creation. It was not so much a statement of a physical place where Christ would be at a certain time, and it would be a mistake to read such a banal understanding into a triumphant declaration of freedom and eternal communion with God. After all, Christ is divine and is omnipresent.
Augustine wrote, “You believe I am going to come, but even before I come, I am everywhere. That is why, I am about to descend into hell, I have you with me in Paradise today. You are with me and not entrusted to someone else. You see, my humility has come down to mortal human beings and to the dead, but my divinity has never departed from Paradise.” (Sermon 285.2)
Hopefully this puts to rest the curate’s objection, so we can now turn to I Peter 3:19, “in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison.” According to Tertullian, “Christ descended into hell in order to acquaint the patriarchs and prophets with his redeeming mission.” (On the Soul 55.2) Christ went down into what we call hell not to suffer, as some claim, but to pronounce his victory over hell and death. While the Bible says very little about the afterlife of the saints who died prior to the momentous event on the cross, there is a hint that they too were barred from Paradise, though they did not suffer like the wicked. If so, then Christ went down to where they were and freed them, releasing them into Paradise.
While there is much that has not been revealed to us, the Bible shows us enough to know that we can recite the creed without deceit, and we know that Christ’s descension into hell was a victory march, storming the gates of hell to pronounce freedom and eternal life in Paradise for all those who belong to God.