Article III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell

Aplogies for the hiatus in my blog. I hope to write a little more in March!

Death has been called “the new obscenity,” because none of us want to talk about it or face it.

Mark Ashton, a Christian minister of a large church in Cambridge was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live, before he died he wrote this:

“Our age is so devoid of hope in the face of death that the topic has become unmentionable. But once you have had the news I have had, it rears its head whether you want it to or not.” (Ashton, On My Way to Heaven, p.7).

Well in this post we're talking about death – Jesus' death and our death. And perhaps our topic, as it relates to death, is even worse – that of hell. In this survey of the 39 Articles – the confession of faith of the Church of England – we have come to one of the shortest and in some ways enigmatic articles. It is this:

III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell.
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

Of course, it's part of the Apostle's creed, which we say quite often in our services when we say of Jesus:

Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
However, there is some question as to what it was intended to mean. Because the articles were written a long time ago and linked to Latin, the word hell could have two different meanings in our modern day. The word hell could be intended to refer to Hades (the place of the dead) or Gehenna (the place of eternal torment). I actually think both options teach us true things and I'm not entirely sure which was intended, so we're going to look at both.

Jesus Experienced Death Fully – He went to Hades
The first option is Hades, the place of the dead. In which case the focus is on the fact that Jesus fully experienced death for us.

That Jesus descended to Hades is reasonably clear from Acts 2:27 which is quoting Psalm 16. In fact the King James Version used “hell” for Hades (the Greek word). Possibly this is the source of confusion and for Hell in our article we are to understand Hades (Sheol in Psalm 16).

Both Hades and Sheol in Greek and Hebrew thought were not usually the place of everlasting punishment that we think of as hell. That is usually Gehenna in the Bible. They were the place that the dead went to wait – in particular to wait for the return of Christ.

The truth that this is expressing is that Jesus died properly. It wasn't some kind of sham death. This understanding of a descent to the place of the dead may explain one of the more tricky NT passages that we read in 1 Peter 3:1. This could be saying that on his death, Jesus went to Hades (the place of the dead) and preached to souls imprisoned in their in the sin – presumably proclaiming his kingdom come and his role as their judge. That might be right, although I have to admit not being entirely convinced of that one. Either way, Jesus death was a proper death. When Jesus died and was buried, he was really dead. His death wasn't in some way a simulation, from which he could rise again.

It's interesting that the quote from Psalm 16 in Acts 2 speaks ultimately of resurrection. The purpose in talking death, Hades and Sheol is to emphasize that this is not where Jesus would be left! It reminds us that in the face of death we have a sure and certain hope. For we follow a King who experienced death and more than that who defeated death and more than that who promises that if we trust him we will defeat death too (John 11:25).

It's something our society needs to hear so much. We are so terrified of death that we refuse to talk about it. We refuse to accept it is coming. We have make-up to defy the signs of ageing. Bottox and facelifts are big business – in fact Britain is apparently the plasticsurgery capital of Europe. It seems we all try and pretend that we aren't going to die. Death really is the new obscenity.

We need to know Jesus really died so that we are confident that there is a way through death. It is this that comforts us when we face death ourselves and when those we love face death. If we're trusting in Jesus, then there is a way through. I find Mark Ashton the minister I quoted earlier who was diagnosed with cancer, challenging.

“Here is one area where Christians have a wonderful opportunity to stand out as different from our contemporary culture. Our contemporaries are obsessed with healing and the extension of physical life at all costs. What a pity we Christians imitate them in that! When we talk about the hope of healing and the relief of physical pain, our contemporaries love it and they flock to our 'healing services' with high hopes. But when we talk about glory lying beyond the grave and our sure hope of eternal life, they are brought up short and are forced to face their own eternal destinies.” (Ashton, On My Way to Heaven, p.11)

Jesus experienced death fully for us, so that we can know a way through it.

Jesus Suffered Fully For Us – He Suffered Hell
The second option of how to understand the word hell is as Gehenna – the place of punishment. This emphasizes that Jesus suffered God's judgement fully for us.

The point here is that hell is God's ultimate judgement against sin. We're talking about the word Gehenna which is translated as hell in our modern translations. The Bible describe this as the place where we are separate from God's love and friendship and we are under his judgement, often using the language of darkness, for example the darkness faced by the worthless servant in Jesus parable (Matthew 25:30) is the darkness Jesus face at his death (Matthew 27:45-46)

We see Jesus experiencing that darkness, that forsakeness, that hell.

The theologian Gerald Bray writes:

“On the one hand, it was necessary for Christ to suffer the full extent of human punishment for sin, which he would not have done if he had not gone to the place of eternal punishment. On the other hand, it was necessary for him to do battle with Satan on his own turf.” (Bray, The Faith We Confess, p.29)

Again, what we needed from Jesus was him to fully experience the consequences of sin in our place and lead us through the other side by his victory. He was defeating death, Satan and hell for us, so that we could be rescued.

If you take a moment to think of it, that is extremely powerful isn't it. It exposes the depth to which Jesus was willing to go to rescue you and me if we put our faith in him. He was forsaken by his own Father, crucified upon a cross, taking our judgement. He was taking hell in our place.

I wonder if you don't trust in Jesus, can you really turn your back on someone who has done that for you? Have you really investigated what you might be facing if you don't trust him?

If you do trust in Jesus, if there is anything that should make you thankful this week it is this. When you recognise that you don't need to be scared any more. Hell is not for you because you have a Saviour who has died in your place and experienced God's judgement in your place. You have a Saviour who went to hell in your place. Jesus has suffered fully for us.

It may be the case that death is the new obscenity. But the Christian can face it with confidence. Jesus has truly died and truly defeated death. We can be confident that if we trust in him, we need not fear death. More than that, Jesus has truly suffered the full extent of God's judgement for us – hell. We have nothing left to fear if we are trusting in Jesus.

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