In the Apostle’s Creed, undoubtedly the most enigmatic phrase is Christ “descendit ad inferos,” descended into hell. After surveying various interpretations of the doctrine, this paper seeks to integrate the Reformed tradition’s view of the descent as the subjective experience of God-forsakenness with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s proposal that Christ entered into solidarity with the dead in hell with no hope of being found by God. The paper then draws three ethical implications from this reading of the descent: the importance of self-surrender, the necessity of solidarity with the oppressed and a chastened confidence towards the prospect for social change in our world.
Karl BarthCredo (London: Hodder & Stoughton1936) 93–94. The risk in describing the atonement in penal substitutionary terms is that God’s wrath and love can appear to be in opposition to one another. Barth wanted to be clear that God’s wrath and God’s love are not set against each other; it is not as if the Father is naturally angry towards humanity and needs to be appeased by Jesus so that he can then be loving towards humanity. Rather God is love and wrath is a basic element of his love demonstrating his holiness and desire for the annihilation of sin and rebellion. See Karl Barth Church Dogmatics (Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc. 2010) CDII/1 360. Cf. David Lauber Barth on the Descent into Hell (Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing Company 2004) 15. Calvin is more ambiguous on this point. He does say “Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the son reconciled us in order that the Father then hating might begin to love us but that we were reconciled to him already loving though at enmity with us because of sin.” II.xvi.4. But he also uses language of God as an enemy towards us and that Jesus placates and appeases the Father. He declares this language is an accommodation to us but nevertheless true. Ultimately he is left with a paradox God “loved even when he hated us.” Calvin InstitutesII.xvi.2–4.
BalthasarMysterium139. Like Barth he goes to length to ensure that God’s wrath is not presented as something that needs to be appeased. Instead God’s wrath is presented as a facet of God’s love. Balthasar Mysterium 121 139. Christ experienced “on the Cross the Father’s love in the form of his anger” but this anger is “a picture of God opposing the contradiction of our sin.” God did not leave us on our own but rather gave us “two responses to sin: the netherworld and the Son. The netherworld as the necessary consequence of sin the Son as the free willingness to atone for sin. Now the two encounter each other.” Hans Urs von Balthasar The Last Act. Vol. V of Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1998) 266–268.
It should be noted that the recent (1998) reformed PC(USA) Study Catechism does not locate the descent specifically to Christ’s experience on the cross but leaves some ambiguity. Question 44 states: “What do you affirm when you say that he ‘descended into hell’? That our Lord took upon himself the full consequences of our sinfulness even the agony of abandonment by God in order that we might be spared.” ‘The Study Catechism: Full Version with Biblical References’ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/biblical.pdf (accessed: February 20 2014).