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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Descent Into Hell

"Christ's Descent Into Hell"
Albrecht Dürer, 1510

Excerpts from Martin Luther's Torgau Sermon on Christ's Descent into Hell, 1532, from Sources and Contexts of The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and James A. Nestingen (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001)

"For before he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven -- while  he still in the grave -- he descended into hell so that he might redeem us who lay imprisoned there, just as he came into death and was laid in the grave that he might bring us out of it. I do not want to preach this article with sublime or precise language, describing exactly how it happened or what it means to descend into hell. Instead, I want to stick to the simple meaning of the words as they must be presented to children and simple people... The customary way of depicting how Christ descended into hell on church walls represents him with a cape and with banners in his hand as he makes his descent and stalks and assaults the devil, as he storms hell and rescues his own people from it. The children's play presented at Easter depicts it in a similar way. It seems better to me that you depict, act out, sing, and recite the story in a very simple way and let it remain at that and not concern yourself with sublime and precise ideas about how it actually took place." (pg. 246)

"Without doubt, such a description has come to us from the ancient fathers who spoke and sang in the language of the old hymns as we still read and sing on Easter Day, 'He broke hell and bound the accursed devil' and so forth. When children or simple people hear something like this, they think of nothing else than that Christ has conquered the devil and taken all his power from him. That is the proper, Christian way to think and express the correct truth and meaning of this article..." (pg. 248)

Luther briefly mentions questions that arise regarding Christ's descent into hell, such as 'What did he do in hell, how did he interact with the devil, and so forth.' Luther continues:

"'I believe in the Lord Christ, God's Son, dead, buried, he descended into hell.' That means I believe in the entire person, God and human creature with body and soul inseparable, born of the virgin, suffered, dead and buried. Therefore I am not supposed to divide up his person but instead simply to believe and to say that this very Christ, God and human creature in one person, descended to hell." (pg. 248)

"Therefore, I believe also in this case that Christ personally destroyed hell and bound the devil whether banners, portals, doors, and chains were made of wood or iron or did not exist at all. It doesn't depend on whether I hand on to what is depicted with the image but rather that I believe these things of Christ. Believing in him is the chief thing. It is useful and gives the power that we have from this: that neither hell nor the devil can take us and all others who believe on him captive nor can they do us harm." (pg. 249)

Hymn: Christ Jesus Lay In Death's Strong Bands (YouTube)


  1. I disagree with Luther. I think Jesus went to hell immediately after he rose from the dead - thus also announcing his victory. The 2 Peter passage seems to support this timeline as well.

  2. Of course disagreeing with Luther's opinion is fine. The Formula of Concorda, Article IX quotes from Luther's Targau Sermon. FC SD IX quotes Luther and says, "We simply believe that the entire person (God and man) descended into hell after the burial..." Now just after the "resurrection" would still be after the burial -- temporally speaking. The Epitome notes that in the status controversae that some theologians of the Augsburg Confession disputed over "When the Lord Christ ... descended into hell?" The Epitome concludes, "it is our unanimous opinion that there should be no dispute." It seems that the Formula of Concord is mostly concerned that the descent into hell is confessed and that his descent destroyed hell for all believers. I happen to agree with Luther and have a section on this in my dissertation.

  3. Yes, we agree that it happened and why, and that is enough. Is your dissertation posted somewhere I can go read it?