This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 3 states:
III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.
Although this is a basic part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is often misunderstood today – to the point where an increasing number of Christians believe this article of faith to be false. There are two primary sources of confusion resulting in such error: one is a faulty understanding of Hell, and the other is that this moment in Jesus’ existence is not very clearly explained in the Bible.
When we think of Hell, we usually think of the fiery place of judgment where the souls of the damned burn eternally. But as far as the teaching of the Bible is concerned, that image is the “lake of fire,” which is one of the pictures of eternal judgment upon the wicked used in the book of John’s Revelation (20:15). Hell (or its Hebrew term sheol), rather, is a generic place where the dead go, usually the wicked (Matthew 5:29-30) and occasionally the righteous (Psalm 16:10). And it’s worth noting that Hell itself gets thrown into the lake of fire at the end of the Final Judgment (Rev. 20:14)!
It is in this sense, as “the place of the dead,” that we understand our Lord to have descended into Hell. After all, if we take seriously the teaching that Jesus is fully human and truly died, then we must conclude that, in his human spirit or soul, the Son of God went where all dead men go. Indeed, his entrance into death and subsequent resurrection lays the foundation for our own hope of resurrection from death. What Jesus did in Hell is a matter of some disagreement between different Christian traditions, and it is noteworthy that Article 3 does not venture to speculate or take sides in the matter.
The other reason Christ’s descent into Hell is often overlooked is because its explanation in the Bible is not neatly spelled out for us. Our most clear picture is found in 1 Peter 3:18-20 which says:
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
As one might imagine, the precise interpretation of his “preaching to the spirits in prison” and their connection to the souls of those who were drowned in the Flood is a matter of controversy among Christian teachers. Nevertheless, even if the precise activity of Christ in Hell is debatable, his descent there in death is a certain fact, and thus a certain comfort.