To Hell and Back: On Christ’s Descent After The Cross
As we near the time of honouring Christ’s death and resurrection, I thought that it would be worth considering a lesser-celebrated event that has been erected between these two pillars of the Christian faith. I realise that some may find the following discussion to be somewhat pedantic and possibly inconsequential; a theological quagmire that deserves little more than a “huh, that’s a strange thing to believe.” But, like many complicated theological issues that arose in our Church’s history, it too is in need of an answer, even if the question seems irrelevant to our daily communion with the Holy Trinity. Thus we should give place to this doctrine ‘as it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter.’ 
The exact location of Jesus Christ during the three-day period between his death and resurrection, or paschal triduum, has raised many questions throughout the centuries. Could Jesus have descended into the depths of hell during those three days? For what purpose would he journey there? Did his body remain in the tomb while his soul travelled to the lower parts of the earth? Ephesians 4:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:18-20 have traditionally provided the scriptural foundation for understanding what is meant by the creedal formulæ ‘descendit ad inferna,’ which appeared for the first time in the Fourth Formula of Sirmium, the Dated Creed of 359ad: ‘the Lord died, descended to the underworld and regulated things there, Whom the gatekeepers of hell saw and shuddered.’  However, the tradition of Christ’s descent to hell is far older. 
It might be helpful to situate the doctrine within the interpretive history of the biblical text. There are three ways of understanding the sense in which Jesus descended to the ‘lower parts of the earth’ in Ephesians 4:9: (1) he travelled to the underworld; (2) it refers to the Incarnation; or (3) it signifies the sending of the Holy Spirit after the Ascension. The Post-Apostolic Fathers were quick to defend the first interpretation. Irenæus (120-202 ad) comments that ‘for three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were, as the prophet says concerning Him: “And the Lord remembered His dead saints who slept formerly in the land of sepulture; and He descended to them, to rescue and save them.’”  Tertullian (160-225ad) believed that the purpose of Christ’s descent was to make ‘the patriarchs and prophets partakers of himself.’  Aquinas also defends this view, listing four reasons why Christ, as a soul,descended into hell: (a) to shoulder the full punishment of sin, and so expiate all of its guilt; (b) to completely rescue all good people [of past generations] and his own friends [who died in his lifetime]; (c) to completely triumph over the devil; and (d) to free the saints who were in hell.  There are elements to Aquinas’s view, namely (a), that I will return to in closing.
In Reformation and Post-Reformation periods, we find that both Calvin and Turretin affirm the descendit ad inferna, but not from this text. With respect to the ‘lower parts of the earth’ in Eph. 4:9, Calvin has this to say:
These words mean nothing more than the condition of the present life. To torture them so as to make them mean purgatory or hell, is exceedingly foolish. The argument taken from the comparative degree, “the lower parts,” is quite untenable. A comparison is drawn, not between one part of the earth and another, but between the whole earth and heaven; as if he had said, that from that lofty habitation Christ descended into our deep gulf. 
Here Calvin’s understanding of the text is closer to the second reading of v. 9. There is also reason to believe that Paul is quoting from the Targum Psalms in v. 8. If Paul was aware of the targumic interpretation of Ps. 68:18 vis-à-vis its ‘long oral prehistory’ and adapted it for his own teaching purposes, then the ‘use of the Moses-tradition would thus imply that the descent of Eph. 4:9-10 is most naturally understood as subsequent to the ascent described in the psalm quotation.’  Therefore the ‘lower parts of the earth’ is ruled out as a possibility for the underworld and supports the notion of Christ ‘giving gifts’ through the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of Eph. 4:11-16.
A more convincing argument for Christ’s descent into hell may lie in the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19. There are three traditional ways of interpreting this text: (1) Christ, in his pre-incarnate state, went and preached through Noah to the wicked generation of that time; (2) during the triduum Christ proclaimed victory over those angels in prison who left their proper state during the time of Noah; or (3) Christ went to the place of the dead (Hades) and there preached to the spirits of Noah’s wicked contemporaries.
If you allow 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 to provide commentary on the context of 3:19, and if pneuma is understood as non-human spirits, as it occurs in the majority of cases in the NT (cf. Matt. 12:45; Mark 1:23, 26; 3:30; Luke 10:20; Acts 19:15-16; 16:16; 23:8-9; Eph. 2:2; Heb. 1:14; 12:9; Rev. 16:13-14) the second interpretation listed, that of Christ’s proclamation of victory over the fallen angels, is preferred. This is ultimately in line with his shouldering the full punishment of sin as a part of his atoning work.
In conclusion, given this interpretation of the biblical text, I think that the descendit ad inferna, as it stands in creedal form, can confidently be affirmed with the preceding qualification. Even though our traditions have muddled the theological waters, we should head into this most celebrated time for the Church bearing in mind not only the passion and resurrection events, but also the extent to which the efficacious work of each one overcame the darkness. Christ suffered the death that ‘God in His wrath had inflicted upon the wicked’; he grappled ‘hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death’; he rose claiming victory once for all.
Roy Michael McCoy III is working on a postgraduate degree in Islamic Studies and History at the University of Oxford. He has a B.A. in Biblical & Theological studies from Biola University and a M.A. from Talbot School of Theology in New Testament Language & Literature. Michael is interested in classical Muslim writing on the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, Biblical and Qur’ānic hermeneutics, and Qur’ān reading in Latin Christendom. He enjoys spending time with his family, drinking tea (with milk of course), and reading classic Christian texts.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeil (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1:512.
 J. D. N. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (New York: David McKay Company, 1972), 378.
 W. Hall Harris III, The Descent of Christ: Ephesians 4:7-11 and Traditional Hebrew Imagery (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 1.
 Irenæus, Against Heresies 5.31.1.
 Tertullian, De Anima 55.2.
 Nicholas Ayo, The Sermon-Conferences of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Apostle’s Creed (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 79-81.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on Galatians and Ephesians, 275.
 Harris, The Descent of Christ, 143.