The Apostle's Creed
The Apostle's Creed was not written by the Apostle's; it is the culmination of several centuries of reflection on the meaning of the Christian faith. The ancient church used this Creed to identify believers, to instruct new converts, and to provide a unifying confession of faith for worship and liturgy.
Regarding # 4 of the Apostles’ Creed;
The final article of the Apostles’ Creed that speaks of Christ’s humiliation concerns His descension into hell. We must understand a little, first of all, what it really means, and must answer this question, “Why did Christ descend into hell?” And to understand the answer to this question, we must ask, first of all, “What does the word ‘hell’ really mean here?”
The term hell is used in Scripture in three different senses. First it is used for the grave. You can read that in Psalm 16:10, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell,” that is to say, “in the grave.” Secondly, it is used to represent the place of the damned. That is the most common usage of the word hell, that everlasting, fearful abode of all those who are outside of Jesus. We read of that in Luke 16: In hell the rich man “lift up his eyes, being in torments.” But thirdly, the word hell is sometimes used to signify the most extreme anguish, pain, and sorrow, as we read in Psalm 116, “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me.” Thus hell is used in three ways: of the grave, of an eternal abode, and of severe distress and anguish.
When we consider the last article of Jesus’ state of humiliation, “He descended into hell,” we understand the term hell to be used in this third sense, signifying extreme distress and anguish. It cannot mean the first sense of grave because this was already confessed in the article, “He was buried.” And when it is said that Christ descended into hell, it cannot be used in the second sense, meaning the place of the damned, because the soul of Christ did not literally go to hell, contrary to what Luther said, for when dying on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Thus, His soul upon death did not go to the place of the damned but it went immediately to heaven. Jesus confirmed that also in His words to the thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
When we speak of Christ’s descension into hell, we speak of the horrendous and dreadful anguish that He experienced prior to His death and burial in all His sufferings, and especially in His death on the cross. In those sufferings, Jesus bore the hellish anguish which was equivalent to what His people would otherwise have had to bear in the literal place of hell forever and ever. He tasted real hell in that sense that His anguish before He died equaled the cries, the groans, and the pain of the damned in eternal hell. In fact, our instructor says that His descension into hell concerns all His sufferings in which He was plunged during His life but especially on the cross. Thus, we can say that Jesus began to descend into hellish agony already in Bethlehem when He came into this cursed world. The cross of Golgotha may be erected next to the cradle in Bethlehem. Jesus tasted hellish agony all the days of His life. He tasted great suffering as the holy One of God, but especially as He drew near to the end of His life and that last week of tremendous suffering in Gethsemane, Gabbatha, and Golgotha.
Jesus descended into hell in a full extent on the cross. There He tasted what we call eternal death which is the missing of God’s favor with soul and body. That is hell, to miss the favor of God forever and ever in soul and body. Jesus bore that infinite sorrow and paid the price of hell in the place of His people. Hell is not a place of the absence of God necessarily, for God is everywhere, but it is the place of the absence of God’s favor, God’s grace. Hell is a place that is filled with the wrath of God, with the anger of God, with the darkness of the curse of God.
Thus, Jesus descended into the extreme torments that the damned experience in the life to come in eternal darkness and He experienced all this for His people. What a great comfort for the children of God! Our instructor in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 16; Q & A 44) puts it tenderly. He says, “That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, ... hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.” Yes, tenderly he says, “my Lord Jesus Christ.” Think of it, “my Lord Jesus Christ,” the Son of God, the almighty One, He who owns, controls, and possesses all things, and to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth — “my Lord Jesus Christ” descended into hell and suffered my shame and bore my ignominy and took over my curse and went through hell for my sake, to deliver me from the anguish and torments of hell. Oh, what a wonder! That is the wonder we commemorate also in the Lord’s Supper, is it not, my friends? Is that not the very pith and marrow of the Lord’s Supper, that He gives His bread and His wine to sinners, and says, “I have taken your hell and I give you My heaven. I have taken your curse and I give you My blessing. I have taken your cup of sin and I give you My cup of merits. I have taken your broken heart and I give you My broken body.” He descended, dear child of God — your Lord Jesus Christ and my Lord Jesus Christ — into the agonies of hell to deliver us from hell. Psalm 116 prophesies that the pains of hell would take hold of Jesus.” He cried out in Gethsemane, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death.” We read in Isaiah 53 that it pleased the Lord to bruise Him, to put Him to grief, to lay on Him the iniquity of us all.
“Especially on the cross,” and especially during the last three of the six hours on the cross, Christ descended into hell. In those last three hours of Jesus’ life upon earth, the cross (may I say it this way) was completely taken out of the hands of man. In those last three hours, darkness, dreadful darkness, the dreadful symbol of God’s wrathful presence, came over the whole earth and descended upon the Son of His everlasting love. In those last three hours there were no mockers, there were no challenges, there were no cries, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” No, in those last three hours mankind was silenced and Satan was silenced, as the hand of God came down upon His Son for your sins and for my sins, dear believer. Not a word was heard from the lips of Jesus for most of those last three hours. There He experienced the absence of the favor of His Father as Judge, the absence of mercy, the absence of communion. There He experienced the absence of precious fellowship with His heavenly Father. Oh, what an agony for the Lord Jesus Christ! There He went to hell. There He went to the center of hell, figuratively speaking, yes, to the bottom of hell to bear in His infinite satisfaction all the hell that you and I, if we are true believers, would otherwise have had to bear.
As the three hours were about to come to an end — but before He was released from that thick darkness — Jesus did cry out one cross word: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” so that you and I, believer, may never be totally forsaken of God, may never have to experience the unrequited and radical absence of the favor of God.
But oh, my dear friends, when we are not true believers, it is this dreadful agony that shall be our portion if we die unconverted, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” That is what Christ tasted in these hours, “Depart from me,” and yes, I say it with reverence, “ye cursed.” He tasted the curse of God. The answer of God to the greatest of all questions ever asked in the face of this world, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” received this answer, “Depart from me into everlasting fire — the fire that My justice demands for the sins of My people.”
That is what we commemorate in the Lord’s Supper. The cup of hell was drunk to its bitter and bottom dregs, the wine was well-refined and all the dregs settled to the bottom through the atoning, hellish agonies of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you see now why I said our (Catechism) instructor says it tenderly — “my Lord Jesus Christ”? He is thinking of what Jesus has done for him. He is thinking of the price that Jesus has paid. This answer is the answer of a believing heart. It is the answer of a humbled, trusting soul. It is an answer of faith whereby the believer embraces this precious Savior as his Savior. He says, “My Lord Jesus Christ has experienced these things,” and in his deep humiliation the believer follows Him by faith and receives grace in his heart to embrace Him, to own Him, and to lay upon Him all his iniquities and all his curse and all his guilt, and yes, all his hell. The believer, guilty, rejectable, condemnable, sinful, wretched, miserable, needy, poor — there is no end to it — he by faith may come, by Spirit-worked faith, and lay his hand upon Jesus in those three hours of darkness and cry out, “My Lord and my God! It’s Thou who hast suffered hell, my Lord Jesus Christ, for this hellworthy soul.” It is too wonderful, it is too much, it is too great, and yet it is all true. Jesus takes on the hell of His people.
My dear friend, may I ask you today, this solemn, solemn question: Who is going to bear your hell for you? We are all sinners, and without a substitute we are all hell-bound. Have you ever needed this Savior to bear your hell for you? Have you never had sleepless hours where you didn’t know how to meet a holy and a righteous God? Has your sin ever become your unbearable burden? Have you never become hellworthy? Every one of us is on our way to eternity, and if we are not born again, then hell is laying open in our pathway. Maybe you have many plans, maybe you have many hopes for the future, maybe you have many goals, many desires. But out of love for your soul, I tell you as baptized sons and daughters of the church, you are subject — as we read in the baptism form — to condemnation, parents and children, if we remain outside of the bloody satisfaction of Jesus Christ. Our future, if God prevent not, despite all our plans, will be drowned in an open hell —an open hell! — if we do not have a substitute who is willing to go to hell for us. My friend, has it ever been real for you? Have you ever signed your own death sentence in the presence of a holy God, and said, “Oh God, here is a sinner whose original and actual sin compels me to go to hell. I must be cast out of Thy sight”? Has it never become eternity before eternity? Have you never seen an open hell at your feet? Have you never trembled before the flames of God’s wrath? Have you never faced eternal darkness?
That is why, it is such a wonder that today we may yet hear the gospel preached to us. Still today, God calls to us as hellworthy sinners, “My son, my daughter, give me thine heart.” Still today, we may proclaim to you before hell becomes hell forever that there is one Name given among men under heaven whereby we must be saved. We may still erect the cross of Golgotha in your midst and command you, sinner, to look to the brazen serpent, and you shall find salvation in Christ alone. The Almighty God shall be your God forever. But also, remember this, that if you refuse to look by faith to Christ, the Almighty God shall condemn you forever. Heaven and hell are both fixed states. They shall never change, congregation. We read in Luke 16 that those who are in hell cannot cross over into heaven. Why did He descend into hell? Why must we show you today the very flames of hell? — not simply to terrorize you, not simply to be negative, but to urge you that there is yet a substitute, that there is yet One who is willing to go to hell for the greatest of sinners, and that substitute proclaims to you today, sinner, “Oh, how I would have gathered you, as a hen gathers her chicks, under My wings,” and must you answer today, “But I would not”?
There is a people here, I trust, who can say: “But He made me willing in the day of His power. He stripped me to nothing and He caused me to hand over the cup of my hell and the cup of my sin and the cup of my curse, and to cast it all upon His mercy, to cast it all at the foot of His cross. There I cried out, even as I felt I must be a castaway, ‘Oh God, deliver my soul!’ Yes, there I cried out, ‘Oh God, must Thou forsake me forever? Is Thy mercy clean gone forever? Shall I Thy promises faithless find?’ And there at the foot of the cross my question was answered with the question of Jesus, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”’ In one moment, when a poor sinner lays hold of a forsaken Christ and clings with two arms and two hands to that Christ who reached out to His Father in heaven and was forsaken of God, that sinners might be accepted, yes, in that moment, when the sinner believes by Spirit-worked faith that Christ has taken his place, the gates of hell will close, and the great wonder is that I stand on this side of hell. And as I marvel at the wonder that I am escaped and that Christ has taken my place, the gates of heaven are thrown open, and I see by way of promise that I shall be with Him in paradise. Oh, blessed day, when I may experience in my soul, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
He has descended into hell, and the believer follows Him to the gates of hell. But there Jesus goes inside, figuratively speaking, and the believer may stay outside and experience that every grace and salvation itself are opened for him. What a wonder! What a wonder that Jesus not only went to hell but that He arose again. He went into the holy of holies to bear the unbearable wrath of God, to turn that wrath into a mercy seat. And there, in the solemn presence of almighty God, all the demands of justice were paid, and Jesus may come out of that holy of holies with the veil rent from the top to the bottom. A new and living way is opened for sinners to draw nigh, even into the presence of a reconciled God and a gracious Father in the Person and merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is an ocean of comfort for the children of God in this article, “He descended into hell.”
“This,” says our (Catechism) instructor, “is my comfort. I ‘wholly comfort myself in this’ ... that in my greatest blessings? my greatest times of spiritual faith? my greatest times of prosperity? my greatest times on the mountaintop of faith? — oh yes, that too, of course, but listen to what he says: ‘that in my greatest temptations.”’ Think about it. “In my greatest hours of need, in my greatest times of darkness, when deep calleth unto deep at the noise of Thy water spouts, when Thy waves and Thy billows go over me, in times when my soul is cast down within me, in times when my tears are my portion day and night, in my greatest temptations, when I fear that my God has forsaken me and my God has forgotten me, when I am alone in the world, when I feel the distance of God, when no one can help me, in times of doubt, in times of unbelief, in times of darkness, in times when I hardly dare to believe, I ‘wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, tenors, and hellish agonies, in which He was plunged during all His sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.”
That is what the Lord’s Supper is when it is blessed to our soul — that we cling, with all our fears, with all our agonies, with all our sorrows, with all our unbelief, with all our needs, with all our hellishness, with all our problems, concerns, fears, weaknesses, and foolishnesses, to “my Lord Jesus Christ,” who took over all those things in the last three hours of His life. And then we may believe, laying our hand upon Him by faith, trusting in Him, that He took my hell and gave me His heaven. That is my whole comfort, that He took my place and gave me what He has merited. That is Christianity; that is true religion; and that is the most humbling thing in all the world. Then He increases, I cannot tell you how high — infinitely high — and then we decrease, to cry out with Mephibosheth, “What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am?”
Our (Catechism) instructor does not say only “in my temptations,” but he says “in my greatest temptations, I wholly comfort myself in this.” Do you know great temptations? Do you know those temptations that bring you sometimes to the brink of despair, that bring you to doubt the work of God in your heart, that bring you to doubt His faithfulness? Then you or I do not trust God. I think, child of God, that you know what I am talking about. Then those small things and times and places where your heart was sometimes glad, where you sometimes felt the drawing power of the Holy Spirit in your soul, where you became a beggar at the throne of grace, where you had liberty to pour out your heart before God to confess your sins and to cling to some degree to Jesus Christ, there you saw Him, albeit sometimes even afar off, yet even afar off you have embraced Him and said, “He is my Lord.” You have cried out at such times, “Give me Jesus, else I die!” Oh, in your greatest temptations you are prone to throw all away and to deny the work of God. You quench His Spirit, you resist His Spirit, or at least, you come close to doing so. There, in the midst of the greatest temptations, what must that poor, tossed-with-tempest soul do? He must flee to a greatly tempted Savior. He must lay all his temptations at the feet of the tempted Messiah on Calvary’s cross and there in his greatest temptations be wholly comforted in this, that the Lord Jesus Christ took his place.
There life is received in the midst of darkness, there the bright light of Christ’s descension into hell shines from the cross and God declares to a greatly tempted sinner, “I have paid your guilt, I have taken your place.” “You may be assured,” is what our (Catechism) instructor says, “in my greatest temptations” not, “I have a remote hope,” but, “I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this.” And why so sure? Not because of his temptations; not because of his religion; not because of anything in him, but he is so assured because the sufferings of Jesus are so sure, because Jesus’ descension into hell is so real, and because it is totally real that Jesus did not go there for Himself He did not endure hellish agonies for His own sins, but He endured everything for poor sinners who cast themselves upon the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
This is my assurance in the midst of temptations: My assurance lies in the suffering of Jesus Christ, in the giving of the Father of His Son to that suffering, and in the Spirit drawing my heart to that suffering. My assurance lies in the Triune God who leads me to the suffering of Jesus Christ. My assurance lies in the promises of God who gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. My assurance lies in the unchangeable Word of God and the irrevocable Son of God. Thus I wholly comfort myself in this: that He took my place, that He bore my sins, that I may have His righteousness. When hell is closed, paradise is opened. Then I become His property for the consciousness of my own soul. Then the light breaks through the darkness. Then my arms are no longer too short to embrace Him. Then I may say with freedom and with tenderness, “’My Lord Jesus Christ,’ my Lord, my Master-Ruler, my Jesus, my Savior to save me from my sins, my Christ, the Anointed of the Father, to be Prophet to teach me, Priest to intercede for me, King to rule me. Oh, ‘my Lord Jesus Christ!”
When our darkness may meet the darkness of Jesus on Calvary’s cross, then all our complaints grow silent. In those last three hours of darkness it was not only the mockers that were silent, it was also the circle of friends. It was not only Satan that was silent and the world that was silent, but also the dear friends of Jesus. When by faith yet today a poor sinner, even I, in the midst of my darkness may meet the darkness of Jesus and may apprehend what Jesus is doing in that darkness, then there is an overflowing love (I hope you understand me), a holy silence that fills my soul as I gaze on the miracle and the wonder and the glory of the cross of Calvary. Then Satan is silent in his enmity and I may be silent in the love, the amazing love, the holy love, of God. Then my soul may experience that kind of peace that passes all understanding, and I would even dare to say, that peace that passes all human language. Then I bask in silence, and with adoring worship I sing the song of Zion and adore Him from whom all blessings flow.
There was once a great composer of music who was asked this question: “Wherein does the greatness of your music lie?” And the composer answered, “In the moments of silence.” If you ask a child of God, “What are the greatest moments of your spiritual pilgrimage here below?”, he may say, “They are the times when I saw the gospel as it were face to face and I had to take the shoes from off my feet and adore the Lord Jesus Christ, and through Him a Triune God, with holy awe, with holy silence, with holy adoration.”
I hope that you may lay it to heart, that you may take this home with you, that the children of God have a God whose love is so amazing and so divine that it drives them into holy silence. I would pray God that He may drive you to your homes concerned, jealous, over the portion of the children of God. And that portion, I would say to you too, is still available; it is just as full as it ever was for the last two thousand years; it is just as free as it ever was; it is just as rich as it ever was.
We come to the last step of Christ’s humiliation and I ask you, my friends, young and old, who is Christ for you? What does it mean to you that He suffered, agonized, and died for sinners? What does it mean to you that He beseeches you today, “Be ye reconciled with God, sinner”? You cannot live without Him, not really live, and you surely cannot die without Him, for to die Christless is to sink into hell.
Do not postpone your great need. Hell is a real place. Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Did you ever realize that? We are not here in this world, my friends, to treat life as a game to be played. Hell is a real place. Hell is eternal. There is an everlasting punishment, we read in Matthew 25. Hell is final. Hell knows no intermission. There is no ten-year imprisonment and then release. There is no bail from hell. There is no parole from hell. There is no purgatory. There is no reincarnation. Hell is a real, eternal, final place. It is a place of fire and torment. It is a place of total darkness and isolation. We read in Matthew 25:30, hell is outer darkness; in 2 Peter 2:17, hell is the mist of darkness; and in Jude 13, hell is the blackness of darkness. Hell is the place of total, utter hopelessness and helplessness. Hell is the place of loneliness. There is no companionship, no laughter, no escape in hell from hell.
And they will go to hell who live without Christ in this world. People die like they live. If they live without the only Name given among men under heaven, they will die without the only Name given among men under heaven. Yes, there is one thief on the cross born again at the last moment, but only one. Oh my friend, if you wait until the eleventh hour of your life to seek the Lord, I warn you that probably you will die at the fifth hour, or the sixth hour, or the ninth hour, or maybe even the tenth hour. But those who reckon to give their old age to God and not live unto Him in their early years, perish under Satan’s devices. People die the way they live.
Not so long ago there was a pilot who died in a plane crash with one hundred people. As the plane crashed, rescuers ran to the scene, but everyone was dead. People began to search for the black box from the wreckage to determine what might have caused such a disaster. They found the box and listened to the last words of this pilot; his last word was the name, “Jesus Christ,” but it was used in vain. Oh, what a terrible way to die! But also, what a terrible way to live! How do you, how do I, use the name of Christ? We cannot escape His name. Do we use Him unto salvation, or do we use Him, in one way or another, in vain?
The only way to use the Lord Jesus is as a full Savior, as the only One who can go to hell for us. No one else can do it. Boys and girls, young people, we must be born again. You must know, you must find, the Lord Jesus Christ. You must repent and believe in the Son of God. And what you cannot do, He is able to do, He is willing to do, and promises to do, for poor beggars who cast their all upon Him.
I wish to leave you with this question, and I ask you, (my dear unconverted friend), take it home with you, take it into prayer with you: Do you have someone who will go to hell for you, who will pay your sins and take your place?
Sermon by Dr. J. R. Beeke