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Most Christians are familiar with the Apostles’ Creed and its claim that Jesus “descended into hell.” But I am not sure if they know what this phrase really means or how they can square it with the teaching of the Bible. How exactly is it that Jesus descended into hell, and when did this happen? Did it happen on the cross, as John Calvin believed? Or did it happen after Jesus died and before He rose again from the dead, as many others have believed? Was this descensus a literal descent? Or was it merely figurative? And what did it entail? It has been pointed out—and rightly so—that the phrase “descended into hell” occurs nowhere in the Bible. But does this mean that the concept behind the phrase is also not found in the Bible? Where can we turn for help in answering these questions?

Personally, I have been helped by the teaching of Hebrews 13:11–12. I think these verses show us the best way of understanding the phrase “descended into hell” and how the concept is in fact biblical, even if the phrase itself does not occur in Scripture. When we understand these verses in the light of the Old Testament sacrificial system, I think we see that Jesus “descended into hell” while He was on the cross offering Himself as a propitiatory sacrifice on behalf of His people.

The Old Testament sacrificial context of Hebrews 13:11 is obvious even at first glance: “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.” As we think through this verse, we need to remember that the very first thing the priest would do with the sin offering in the Old Testament was to lay his hands on the head of the animal being sacrificed (Lev. 4:4–5). By doing so, he was imputing his own sins (or the sins of the people) to the animal—which meant that it had now become sin. Then, the high priest would kill the sin-bearing animal and take its body “outside the camp,” where it would be wholly consumed in fire.

But why outside the camp? What was so significant about that particular location? What was that phrase meant to convey? Quite simply, God Himself lived inside the camp of Israel. He dwelled in the midst of His people and did so in a way that was unlike the way He dwelled outside the camp. As the omnipresent Lord of the universe, God was clearly present both inside and outside the camp (because He was—and is—present everywhere). But He was present covenantally and evangelically only inside the camp, not outside it. Let me explain what I mean.

When I say that God was not covenantally present outside the camp, I mean that the promise “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” was applied only inside the camp (Ex. 6:7; Jer. 7:23). God was not the covenantal God of those who were outside the camp; and they were not His people. His covenantal presence did not extend beyond the bounds of the camp, which consisted of the twelve tribes of Israel gathered around the tabernacle. “Outside the camp” was, therefore, the place outside of God’s covenantal favor. It was the place where He was not their God, and they were not His people.

There is no hell left for those who are in Christ.

When I say that God was not evangelically present outside the camp, I mean that God was working for the good of the people only inside the camp. To be sure, God was working outside the camp, but He was not working for the good of the people who were there, because they were not His people, and He was not their God. Romans 8:28 is a glorious promise that every Christian ought to hold dear. But it only applies to Christians, or as Paul says, to “those who love God” and “are called according to his purpose.” It does not apply to those who are not God’s people. And the same basic idea can be used in reference to those who were living inside and outside the camp. God was present inside the camp for the good of His people but not so outside the camp. God was present outside the camp only in judgment and wrath.

According to the Bible, there is only one place that is ultimately outside of God’s covenantal and evangelical presence forevermore, and that is hell. It is the one place about whose citizens it can truly and permanently be said that God is not their God, and they are not His people. It is the one place in which God is present only in judgment and wrath (remember that God’s omnipresence means that He is present even in hell) and never for blessing. It is, therefore, no surprise that Jesus repeatedly refers to hell as the place of “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (e.g., Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). It is the place outside of God’s covenantal and evangelical presence. It is outside the camp.

This interpretation would seem to be supported by the fact that the Jews were required to take the bodies of the animals (that had become sin by imputation) outside the camp and to burn them up in fire, because the New Testament repeatedly refers to hell in terms of fire. It is the “fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:42, 50), the “eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41), the “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), and “the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). And those who escape hell are said to escape “as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15) or to have been snatched “out of the fire” (Jude 23).

Once we understand this, we can see that the Old Testament sacrificial system symbolically required that the bodies of the animals (which had become sin by way of imputation) be taken to hell and wholly consumed in fire. And it is in this light that Hebrews 13:12 is so significant, because it says: “So [or, perhaps better, therefore] Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” The point should be clear: there is a direct connection between Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross—which was outside the city gates of Jerusalem—and the practice of burning the animal sacrifices outside the camp in the Old Testament. Just as the animal sacrifices were credited with the sins of the people, killed, and sent outside the camp to hell to be wholly consumed in fire, so Christ was credited with the sins of His people (2 Cor. 5:21), killed, and sent “outside the camp” to hell to be wholly consumed.

And the idea is that all this took place on the cross. Jesus went to hell—the place outside of God’s covenantal and evangelical presence—as our sin bearer, and He was wholly consumed in wrath and judgment. It was then that He uttered the well-known cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). At that moment, God was treating Him as though He was sin—the sin of all who would ever believe in Him, past, present, and future. Jesus was wholly consumed in fire as the sin-bearing sacrifice, and we are told that this took place “outside the gate.”

According to Hebrews 13:11–12, Jesus did descend into hell. He did so on the cross as He bore an eternity of hell for all the sins of all His people who would ever live. He was wholly consumed. That means that there is no hell left for those who are in Christ. He descended into hell so that we would never have to. He stood in our place and took the judgment and wrath of God poured out against our sins. And He rose again from the dead on the third day to confirm that His sacrifice was in fact accepted by the God of the universe. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

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