Dear Church Family,
In the adult Sunday school class, we are studying the book of Revelation. After a few weeks of introduction, we began our chapter by chapter study in the chapter one this past week. The first chapter of Revelation gives a beautiful and awe-inspiring picture of Jesus Christ standing in the midst of his churches. As her warrior-king, He promises both to protect and to purify His Church. At the end of our lesson this past week, we had a short discussion about two somewhat related topics: the intermediate state and the phrase “He descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed.
The Intermediate State
First, we introduced the concept of “the intermediate state.” Simply put, the intermediate state refers to the disembodied existence of all people after they die, but before the resurrection of our bodies (at Christ’s return). The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the teaching of Scripture on this point in chapter 32, paragraph 1:
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect of holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
That last sentence is added, no doubt, due to some of the erroneous teachings of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that arose during the Middle Ages. Let’s consider three of them: purgatory, the Limbus Patrum, and the Limbus Infantum.
According to the RCC, purgatory is not a place of punishment, but a place for final sanctification – a place where the faithful bear the temporal punishments for their sins: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 12.III, 1030). Drawing on the inter-Testamental writings of the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 12:42-45), the idea of purgatory is what gave rise to the selling of ‘indulgences’ which Martin Luther famously inveighed against; by giving money to the church, a person could reduce or eliminate the time that their loved ones would spend in purgatory.
The doctrine of purgatory finds no warrant in Scripture. And, what’s more, it is based on several faulty premises: that we must add our work (or suffering) to that of Christ; that our good works can actually be meritorious; that the Church can actually remit sins in an absolute judicial sense.
Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum
According to the RCC, the Limbus Patrum, is the place where “the souls of the Old Testament saints were detained in a state or expectation until the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. After His death on the cross Christ is supposed to have descended into the abode of the fathers, to release them from their temporary confinement and to carry them in triumph to heaven. This is the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christ’s descent into hades.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 687).
The Limbus Infantum is the supposed place where all unbaptized children go after death to spend eternity. The idea is that unbaptized children cannot be admitted to heaven, so they are consigned to a place on the outskirts of hell. This is what limbus refers to. The Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum are two supposed places that are on the fringe or outskirts of hell. In both instances of the word in these two supposed places, the limbus is neither heaven nor hell.
“He descended into hell”
As noted above in the quotation from Berkhof, the teaching that Christ “descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed has been combined with the idea of the Limbus Patrum. In this line of thinking, according to the RCC, the idea is that the Old Testament saints were kept in a ‘holding place’ (sometimes referred to as “Abraham’s bosom,” cf. Luke 16:23) from which Christ delivered them at the time of His death and resurrection. John Calvin referred to this notion as a fable, and a childish one at that (Institutes, II.16.9).
In both the Old Testament (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7) and the New Testament (e.g. Philippians 1:21-26), we are taught that the souls of believers immediately enter into the presence of the Lord. This is why, in the paragraph quoted above, the Westminster Confession of Faith concludes with the statement: “Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.”
So what do we mean when we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that the Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “descended into hell”? Well, the Reformed Catechisms actually give us two options. Consider the two different ways in which the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) understand this phrase:
WLC 50 Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
Answer: Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
HC 44 Why is there added, “he descended into hell?”
Answer:That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
[By the way, if you were in the Sunday school class, I’ve corrected the typos from the handout, and you can find the corrected copy uploaded to the church website here: http://providencemidland.org/audio/message/sunday-school-revelation-chapter-1.]
Far from teaching that Christ set the Old Testament saints free from a kind of limbo, these Biblical understandings of how Christ descended into hell give us great assurance and comfort as believers. Whether one understands “he descended into hell” to be a reference to Christ occupying the state of death or experiencing the torments of hell (both of which are viable options, in my opinion), His work was meritorious on our behalf. Christ experienced the penalty of death and all the torments of hell on our behalf.
It is a doctrine and an understanding of the powerful and gracious work of our Savior that ought to cause us to praise and thank Him, to bless and extol His name, to look forward to when we will see Him in glory, and to long for the resurrection of our bodies at His second coming!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch