This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(40) Q. Why did Christ have to suffer death?
A. Because God’s justice and truth require it: nothing else could pay for our sins except the death of the Son of God.
(41) Q. Why was he “buried”?
A. His burial testifies that he really died.
(42) Q. Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?
A. Our death is not a payment for our sins, but only a dying to sins and an entering into eternal life.
(43) Q. What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?
A. By his power our old man is crucified, put to death, and buried with him,so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us, but that instead we may offer ourselves as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to him.
(44) Q. Why does the creed add, “He descended into hell”?
A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.
In 1905, a young man named Stuart Pierson was being initiated into a college fraternity. Other frat members bound him to a railroad bridge, which they thought was not in use. Tragically, an unscheduled train rumbled down the tracks that night, killing the young man. Hundreds of other examples of accidental hazing deaths have occurred over the years. You can hear those involved saying, “We only wanted to humble him a little. We didn’t mean to go all the way to his death.”
Why did Jesus humble himself so far that he was “dead, and buried; he descended into hell”? And how is this good news for us?
Confess Christ’s Final Humiliation
Jesus’s death and burial describe his literal history. It is one of the catechism’s shortest and bluntest answers: Christ’s “burial testifies that he really died.” Only dead people are buried. The respected Jewish historian Josephus, who lived just after Jesus, documented his crucifixion and death under Pontius Pilate.[i] Josephus had little personal interest in Jesus—he covers the years in which Jesus walked the earth in about 75 pages, yet reports his entire life and death in three sentences. But as a historian he had to include this unavoidable fact: Jesus died. No truth was more certain to Jesus’s disciples. The resurrection demanded faith; Jesus’s death was obvious to everyone (Acts 26:26).
Understanding Christ’s descent into hell is more complicated. This phrase has been interpreted both literally and metaphorically.[ii] Some say that Jesus literally went to hell to complete his atoning sufferings. But in Jesus’s own words—“It is finished” (John 19:30)—his work of salvation was completed on the cross. Others have taught that Jesus went to hell to give condemned sufferers another chance to repent. But his parable of the rich man and Lazarus confirms that no one crosses over from hell to heaven (Luke 16:26); the time to repent is now. Still others say that Jesus preached to spirits who were awaiting the final judgment; he taunted the damned and encouraged the redeemed. Perhaps.
But the catechism interprets the phrase as a metaphor. The original proof texts describe the extent of the torment he endured in achieving salvation for the elect. “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” His “soul makes an offering for guilt” (Isa. 53:10). On the cross, in complete darkness, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). The best word for what Jesus endured for his brothers and sisters is not “death” but “hell.” Hell is a real, physical place of punishment for those who die as unredeemed sinners. But a literal hell has nothing on what Jesus experienced at the cross. So intense was his suffering that “Pilate was surprised to hear” that he died so quickly (Mark 15:44).
Be Comforted by Christ’s Final Humiliation
Is it possible that the horrific descent of God’s Son can comfort us? Yes!
Jesus Fully Endured Sin’s Curse for Us
Sin brings death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). That is a sobering threat. But death is troubling not simply because it is the end of life, but also because it is the start of our eternal destiny of either joy or misery. In his death Jesus fully experienced the misery of hell to give believers the joy of heaven. Because he died in our place Jesus’s passion comforts us in moments of “dread and temptation.” We fear that our sins have separated us from God. We worry that God is crushing us under unrelenting grief and guilt. Sometimes his face is hidden from us so that we feel utterly forsaken by him (Isa. 59:2). But what we fear Christ has already endured for us. In Jesus’s suffering God held back nothing. “By suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier,” Christ “has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.” It would be unjust for God to subject believers to judgment for their sin.
Jesus Gives Us New Spiritual Lives
The fresh, clean, new Christian life—signified by baptism (Rom. 6:4)—is a reality for everyone who is united to Jesus by faith. We must believe that; it isn’t self-evident. For lots of reasons sin seems inevitable to us. We have seen other respectable people fall. We have fallen ourselves. And we know the secret inclinations others can’t see. But knowing that believers are not mastered by sin is half the battle. We can dethrone sin, renounce its passions, refuse to present our “members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness,” and present ourselves to God as redeemed people. How? “Our old self was crucified with [Jesus] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:12–13, 6). Jesus’s blood is the credit that cancels our debt of sin. It is also like a blood transfusion for a sick person; it fortifies us for the good fight of faith.
Jesus Transformed the Deaths of Believers
Death is scary because some people die, and as a payment for their sins, begin an eternity of “torment” and “anguish.” (Luke 16:23, 24). At death some people hear the judge of the earth say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Those who die in their sins fall further away from life in the afterlife. And by rights we should all receive that judgment. But, while death is a consequence of sin, for believers it is “not a payment for our sins but only a dying to sins and an entering into eternal life.” The graves of believers become “resting places in which we may quietly and peacefully repose until we are again raised to life.”[iii] “To be away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:7).
By true faith, those who are “baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom. 6:3). For Jesus, that “baptism” (Luke 12:50) meant hell. For believers, it means heaven.
[i] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews in The Works of Josephus (Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, n.d.), 548.
[ii] See Daniel R. Hyde’s In Defense of the Descent: A Response to Contemporary Critics (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
[iii] Ursinus, Commentary, 225.