The Nature and Purpose of Christ’s Descent into Hell [Commentary on Browne: Article III (2)]

As discussed previously, Browne argues that “Hell” in Article III should be understood as “Hades,” the place of departed spirits, and does not refer to “Gehenna,” the realm of damned souls. However, even simply stating that Christ entered Hades broadly rather than Gehenna specifically is not uncontroversial. Browne notes that Calvin argued Christ’s descent into Hell actually refers to his suffering on the cross:

The opinion held by Calvin appears to have been, that our Lord’s descent to hell means not His going to the place of spirits, but His suffering upon earth, in Gethsemane and on the cross, all the torments of hell, and the sufferings of damned souls.

Calvin articulates his view on the subject as follows:

Apart from the creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.[1]

Browne does not comment on Calvin himself, but directs readers to Bishop Pearson’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed for “observations on this notion.” Pearson, for his part, rejects the idea that Christ could suffer the torments of hell as an impossibility:

It must not, it cannot, be admitted that Christ did suffer all those torments which the damned suffer; and therefore it is not, it cannot, be true, that by suffering them he descended into hell. There is a worm that never dieth, which could not lodge within his breast; that is, a remorse of conscience, seated in the soul, for what that soul hath done: but such a remorse of conscience could not be in Christ, who though he took upon himself the sins of those which otherwise had been damned, yet that act of his was a most virtuous, charitable, and most glorious act, highly conformable to the will of God, and consequently could not be the object of remorse.[2]

Moreover, Pearson continues, “An essential part of the torments of hell is a present and constant sense of the everlasting displeasure of God, and an impossibility of obtaining favour, and avoiding pain,” which also Christ could not possibly have experienced in virtue of the fact that he “knew the beginning, continuance, and conclusion of his sufferings.”[3] In light of these difficulties with Calvin’s position, to say nothing of its relative novelty, Browne instead presents as normative the view that Christ actually descended to Hades, partly on the strength of “its very general acceptance, as an article of faith, by all the earlier fathers of the Church.”

Before we inquire further into the purpose of Christ’s descent into Hell, it is worth saying a few words about another perspective on the subject that has developed in the years since Browne wrote, namely that of Hans Urs von Balthasar. On Gavin D’Costa’s account, Balthasar suggests that “Christ passively accepts, in obedience, the fate that is humanity’s through his descent into hell, the deepest pit of God-forsakenness.”[4] Or, in Keith L. Johnson’s summary of Balthasar, “To say that Jesus Christ ‘descended into hell’ is to confess that Christ descended to the place of punishment in order to experience the Godlessness of hell on our behalf.”[5] D’Costa quotes Balthasar to this effect:

Perverse finite freedom casts all its guilt onto God, making him the sole accused, the scapegoat, while God allows himself to be thoroughly affected by this, not only in the humanity of Christ but also in Christ’s trinitarian mission. The omnipotent powerlessness of God’s love shines forth in the mystery of darkness and alienation between God and the sin-bearing Son; this is where Christ ‘represents’ us, takes our place.[6]

D’Costa notes that while “there is a tendency for a christological, and therefore trinitarian, rupture within the divine life in Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday,” at the same time “there are statements in Balthasar’s corpus that seem to rectify this problematic impression and it is difficult to pin Balthasar down.”[7] Ultimately, D’Costa is skeptical that Balthasar succeeds in simultaneously preserving trinitarian orthodoxy and advancing his novel theory of Christ’s ontological God-forsakenness in Hell—insofar as the one is truly accomplished, the other is not.[8]

Returning to the question of what Christ accomplished with his descent into Hades, Browne observes that although the fathers are generally agreed that “the Spirit or Soul of Christ preached the Gospel to the souls of the dead” (1 Peter 3:19), there is considerably less agreement “on the purpose or end of Christ’s preaching.” Indeed, there has been a wide range of answers to this question, including that 1) Christ’s preaching was purely declaratory and “no change took place in the condition of souls after our Lord’s descent among them, and in consequence of his preaching to them”; 2) Christ preached and “delivered some who were there, and carried them thence to some better place,” among which number were either “the prophets and patriarchs,” other “souls of the dead” who had never yet heard the Gospel, or both; 3) Christ preached and “even some of those who in old times had been disobedient, yet, on hearing Christ’s preaching, believed, and so were saved and delivered from torment and hell.”

Having surveyed these and other viewpoints, Browne favorably unfolds the declaratory interpretation of Christ’s preaching at some length:

The word “preached,” or “proclaimed,” by no means necessarily infers that He preached either faith or repentance. Christ had just finished the work of salvation, had made an end of sin, and conquered hell. Even the angels seem not to be fully enlightened as to all the work of grace which God performs for man. It is not likely, then, that the souls of the departed patriarchs should have fully understood or known all that Christ had just accomplished for them. They indeed may have known, and no doubt did know, the great truth, that redemption was to be wrought for all men by the sufferings and death of the Messiah. But before the accomplishment of this great work, neither angels nor devils seem fully to have understood the mystery of it. If this be true, when the blessed Soul of our crucified Redeemer went among the souls of those whom He had just redeemed, what can be more probable than that He should have “proclaimed” (ἐκήρυξεν) to them, that their redemption had been fully effected, that Satan had been conquered, that the great sacrifice had been offered up?

The singular difficulty with this interpretation of Christ’s descent, as Browne points out, is that 1 Peter 3:20 expressly says Christ preached to those who were “disobedient…in the days of Noah.” What makes the difficulty so great, he continues, is that “the proclamation of the finishing of the great work of salvation is represented by St. Peter as having been addressed to these antediluvian penitents, and no mention is made of the penitents of later ages, who are equally interested in the tidings.”

If I understand him correctly, Browne’s response to this difficulty is essentially to accept the text as it stands rather than “reject the literal and grammatical interpretation of the passage” or attempt to explain away its obvious meaning. In other words, on Browne’s reading the antediluvian penitents were a special case and, in light of their unusual circumstances, had a unique interest in having the Gospel preached to them. As a special case, they should not be used as grounds for extrapolating any broader opportunity for repentance and conversion among departed souls in general.

Francis J. Hall largely shares Browne’s conclusion as to the plain reading of the passage:

The natural sense of this [verse] is that, when Christ descended into Hades, He proclaimed the Gospel to the departed, in particular to certain who disobeyed the call of God on the eve of the deluge. No sufficient reason has been given for rejecting this interpretation, and no reasonable alternative for it has been discovered.[9]

Hall does, however, venture further, theorizing as to why “the preaching of the Gospel to them was not useless”:

The reason would appear to be that their former disobedience was due to what was then invincible ignorance. If this interpretation is correct, the passage would seem to be an inspired warning against our assuming that the benefits of Christ’s death are limited to those who accept the Gospel in this life.[10]

Thus we find that while Hall agrees with Browne that the plain reading of the passage should be accepted, he draws a completely different inference from it with regard to its larger import for the possibility of conversion after death. As the example of Browne shows, however, accepting the passage at face value does not require us to go as far as Hall does in his speculations, and indeed, pastoral discretion would seem to militate against it.[11]

Notes

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II.16.10, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 331. See also Keith L. Johnson, “‘He Descended into Hell,’” Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University, Easter 2014, 30‒31, https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/217609.pdf.
  2. John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed, revised ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1882), 438‒39, emphasis original. Compare Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 2, Bk. VII, The Passion & Exaltation of Christ (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 212.
  3. Pearson, Exposition, 439.
  4. Gavin D’Costa, “The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar’s Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 2 (April 2009): 149, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2400.2009.00409.x.
  5. Johnson, “‘He Descended into Hell,’” 31, https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/217609.pdf.
  6. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 4, The Action (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), p. 336, quoted in D’Costa, “The Descent into Hell,” 149, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2400.2009.00409.x.
  7. D’Costa, “The Descent into Hell,” 154, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2400.2009.00409.x.
  8. For further critique of Balthasar’s theology of the descent into Hell, see Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), and Lyra Pitstick, Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). For an attempt to argue that Balthasar is not at odds with traditional orthodoxy on this topic, see Riyako Cecilia Hikota, And Still We Wait: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of Holy Saturday and Christian Discipleship (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018). For an extended treatment of what it means to say God was “forsaken” by himself, see Thomas H. McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012).
  9. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 212‒13.
  10. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 213n1.
  11. For further treatments of Christ’s descent into Hell, see Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (Yonkers, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009); Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019); and Samuel D. Renihan, Crux, Mors, Inferi: A Primer and Reader on Christ’s Descent (Independently published, 2021).

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


'The Nature and Purpose of Christ’s Descent into Hell [Commentary on Browne: Article III (2)]' has 1 comment

  1. April 21, 2023 @ 9:19 am Justin Clemente

    Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful discussion! Calvin’s position on that line in the Creed has always been a bit of a mystery to me, especially with the fairly clear teaching of 1 Peter 3:19. Martin Davie’s discussion of Article III in Our Inheritance of Faith is helpful here, too.

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