Every Sunday, Christians around the world confess the Apostles’ Creed during worship. Sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Symbol (based on its Latin title Symbolum Apostolicum), it consists of twelve articles. The fifth article includes a clause which has often led to controversy, particularly in Reformed-Roman Catholic polemics. In it we confess that “he [Christ] descended into hell.”
Now, how should Christ’s descent into hell be understood? Many Roman Catholic theologians (though not all) have understood it by what in English has become known as the “Harrowing of Hell.” This view, in short, holds that the patriarchs of the Old Testament could not enter heaven until redemption by Christ made this possible. They were therefore kept in a part of the underworld called the limbus patrum (the Limbo of the Fathers/Patriarchs) until Christ’s soul descended into it and liberated them. But did Christ descend localiter (locally, i.e. spatially) into hell in the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection? Several reasons may be given why this was not the case, as Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) shows:
“The Reformed deny all local descent, because (1) neither would he [Christ] have descended according to the divine nature (which by its omnipresence rejects all local movement), nor according to the human, which once more neither descends as regards the body (which throughout the three days partly hung on the Cross, partly lay in the tomb), nor according to the soul, since at the point of death he commended it into his Father’s hands, and since it ascended that very day to Paradise (Lk. 23:43), as Adam on the very day of his sin was ejected and carried away from Paradise (Gen. 3:23, 24). (2) Because a local descent is quite useless and superfluous. He did not descend into hell to suffer for us there: that had already been finished on the cross (Jn. 19:30). Nor to satisfy for our sins by such a descent; this was already provided for by his death (Heb. 2:14; 9:12; 1 Thess. 1:10). Nor to bring the patriarchs of the Old Testament out of hell, since they never were in hell, as is clear from Enoch’s case (Heb. 11:5) and Elijah’s (2 Kings 2:11). Nor to triumph over the devils; that was already done on the cross (Heb. 2:14, 15; Col. 2:14-15) and afterwards also in the ascension (Eph. 4:8-12) I shall add (3) because the Papists’ limbo is nothing but a superfluous fiction devoid of all Scripture and reason.”
– Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), Theoretico-practica Theologia, V.xiii.12.
Thus it is clear that Christ did not and could not have descended into hell locally. The majority of Reformed theologians understood Christ’s descent into hell in a different manner, referring it to the agony Christ suffered on the cross when he underwent the punitive judgment of God the Father in our stead. Amandus Polanus (1561-1610) explains:
“Christ descended into hell the moment when in the garden he struggled with the judgment and wrath of God and the horror of eternal death and ran the whole of him with bloody sweat; and was made a curse for us on the cross. And accordingly he descended living into hell and tasted the tortures of gehenna, though not however dead. Whence we understand that Christ descended into hell not locally, i.e. by quitting the body with the substance of the soul for the place appointed for the damned, because with it he entered paradise, he committed it into the Father’s hands; but virtually, secundum virtutem, by the strength by which he conquered hell and its pains in himself for our good. In the Apostolic Symbol the article on Christ’s descent into hell is placed after the article on the burial, but this is done in order that the things which happened outwardly to Christ, expressly in his body, might be recounted first, and only then the inward happenings to his soul.”
– Amandus Polanus (1561-1610), Syntagma Theologiae, VI.21.