1) Psalm 139:7-8
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” The phrase “in the depths” translates the Hebrew word sheol, which the King James Version translates with the word “hell,” e.g. “If I make my bed in hell, you are there.” The early verses of Psalm 139 assure us of God’s omnipresence—wherever we go, he is already there, and there is no part of the universe—no matter how low or how dark or how distant it may be—where he is not already and always present.
2) Colossians 2:15
“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” The phrase “powers and authorities” refers to the spiritual forces of wickedness, not to human rulers. By his bloody death on the cross, Christ triumphed over Satan and his demons in all their various ranks and titles. The cross was a decisive victory for the Son of God. He won the battle so convincingly that the outcome of the war can no longer be in doubt. To “disarm” someone means to take his weapons away. If a man has a gun pointed at you, he’s not disarmed until you take the gun away from him. As long as he has the gun (and sufficient ammunition), you’re in big trouble. When Jesus died on the cross, he took the guns and the ammo out of the hands of the demons. And he publicly humiliated them. Picture the Roman legions returning from a successful war. As they enter the city, vast throngs of women and children line the streets. On and on they march, a seemingly endless parade. Then come the victorious generals, each one accompanied by singers, dancers, and musicians. Finally at the end of the procession you spot a long line of weary, dirty, emaciated men. Their hands are tied, they shuffle one after another. They are the defeated soldiers, now brought back to be displayed as proof of Rome’s invincible power.
3) I Peter 3:18-19
“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” One of my Greek professors at Dallas Seminary called this passage (I Peter 3:18-22) the most difficult in the New Testament. It is hard to translate and difficult to understand. Perhaps I should say it this way: It’s not difficult to translate the words per se, but it is extraordinarily difficult to understand what they mean. What exactly was Peter trying to say? One evangelical commentator noted that there are nine Greek words in verse 19—and scholars disagree about the meaning of all of them! After studying the passage again this week, I came away impressed and overwhelmed by the bewildering variety of interpretations.It’s fair to say that no one is certain about what Peter means—even though some people think they know for certain. The rest of us aren’t so sure. Verse 18 is clear as it stands. It’s a simple statement of substitutionary atonement: Christ died on our behalf to bring us to God. If Peter had stopped right there, we wouldn’t have any problems. But he continued in verse 19 by talking about Jesus being dead in the flesh and made alive by the Spirit. The NIV capitalizes the word “Spirit” so we will know Peter means the Holy Spirit. But many commentators (I lean in this direction) prefer to use a lower-case “s” and to translate it as “spirit,” meaning Christ’s human spirit. Then Peter says Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. After canvassing the various options, I think he means that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirit beings—demons who rebelled against God. Underline or circle the phrase “I think” because I’m expressing an opinion, not a certainty. And I’m not even going to go into the part about Noah, the ark and baptism. That can wait for another sermon.
But there’s one more thing we need to do before we can begin to draw some conclusions. Here are three Bible words that will help us think about the phrase “he descended into hell.” First, there is the Hebrew word sheol. A very common word in the Old Testament, it refers to the shadowy realm of the dead. Sheol is where dead people go when they die. Sometimes it is translated as “grave.”Second, there is the Greek word hades, which to us means “hell” but in the New Testament, it is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol.Third, there is the Greek word gehenna, which always refers to the place we call “hell,” the place of fire and brimstone. It is the place of eternal torment. The word gehenna comes from the enormous trash dump in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem. Smoke and fire ascended from the dump day and night. It became a symbol for hell—the place of eternal suffering.
I. What it can’t mean
No matter what else we say about the phrase, “He descended into hell,” there are three things it cannot mean.
II. What it might mean
In the Middle Ages various writers developed an elaborate doctrine called “the harrowing of hell.” Many people believed that between his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ went to the regions of darkness and proclaimed his victory over the devil and the demons. This belief spawned some very creative painting by medieval and Renaissance artists. I found a reproduction on the Internet of one painting that shows a victorious Christ standing over the mouth of an enormous serpent. He is rescuing various Old Testament saints from the “mouth of the serpent.” The value of this doctrine is that it answers the question, “What happened to the Old Testament saints when they died?” While we know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), it seems that Old Testament believers did not always have that same assurance. Some suggest that Christ liberated the righteous souls who were in the “paradise” part of Hades and thus “led captivity captive” (see Ephesians 4:8-10, KJV). The Scofield Reference Bible made this view popular a generation ago. The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 seems to lend support for that view. Richard Phillips adds this comment: “This whole scene takes place in hell, that is, in Hades. On one side of hell, as it were, is paradise, where Abraham and Lazarus are. On the other side, beyond a great chasm, hell is really hell, and that is where the once greedy rich man now is. This also seems to agree with what Jesus said to the thief on the nearby cross who believed in Him: ‘Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”’ (Luke 23:43). Presumably, then, Jesus went to hell, proclaiming his victory to those given over for damnation, while actually staying in the paradise precincts.”
The death of Christ brought startling changes in the spirit world, most of which remain hidden to us.
III. What it must mean
A. Christ fully experienced death
This is the primary meaning of “he descended into hell.” In his death he entered into the human experience of dying as much as any person who has ever lived. He knows what death is all about because he has been there, he entered the “House of Death” and he came out holding the keys in his hand (Revelation 1:18). A few days ago I found this wonderful statement by Dr. W. A. Criswell from a sermon he preached onRevelation 1:18:
When they nailed his feet to the tree, and when they nailed his hands to the wood, and when he entered into the dark gloom of the grave, there did he trample down forever the kingdom of death. And when he arose triumphant from it, he carried death as a captive chained to his chariot wheels.
I like that picture—death chained to the chariot wheels of Jesus. Our Lord could not have conquered death unless he fully entered into every dark part of the kingdom of death. Only then could he emerge victorious with the “keys” in his hand.
B. Christ fully defeated the devil
Here are five ways the devil was defeated by the cross of Christ:
2. His works were destroyed—I John 3:8
3. His power was broken—Hebrews 2:15
4. His demons were disarmed—Colossians 2:15
5. His doom was guaranteed—John 16:11
1) We need not fear death.
Death is like a dark room that frightens us because we don’t know what’s in there. The Creed tells us that Jesus has gone into every dark room before us. The light may not be on, but Jesus is there saying, “Come on in, I am here and it is safe.” An old hymn by Richard Baxter reminds us that
Than he went through before.
He that unto God’s kingdom comes,
Must enter by this door.
We all die sooner or later, but Christ has transformed death for the believer.
2) The work of salvation is absolutely complete.
Because Christ died for us and took our punishment, we cannot go to hell. Let me say that in a stronger way. It is utterly impossible for a true child of God to go to hell. It cannot happen, it will not happen. Our Lord descended into hell so that we might never go there. He took the curse for us so that the curse could never fall on us. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
3) The devil is now a toothless tiger.
Though he has great power and roams the earth like a roaring lion, and though he makes great pretensions and may at times fill us with dread, his power has been broken once and for all. Hear the words of Martin Luther: “Through Christ hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed … so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us.” All the enemies of Christ have been defeated. They remain on the battlefield, but the end has already been written. We know how the story ends. Jesus wins—and we win with him. The devil cannot defeat us because we are united with the Ultimate Champion—the Lord Jesus Christ.
All the enemies of Christ have been defeated. They remain on the battlefield, but the end has already been written.
So we will let Martin Luther have the final word on this subject:
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.