Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 16 - Dead and Buried; He Descended Into Hell
Question 40: Why was it necessary for Christ
to humble himself even unto death?
Answer 40: Because of the justice and truth of God
satisfaction for our sins
could be made in no other way
than by the death of the Son of God.
Question 41: Why was he buried?
Answer 41: His burial testified
that he had really died.
Question 42: Since Christ has died for us,
why do we still have to die?
Answer 42: Our death is not a payment for our sins,
but it puts an end to sin
and is an entrance into eternal life.
It feels as if the Catechism is acting like a child here. With their various questions children can make us think about things we had long accepted as self-evident.
That is also the purpose of these three questions. We know for a fact that Christ died, but why did that have to happen? Why was he not allowed to go to heaven without dying, once he had proclaimed that everything had been accomplished? That is a meaningful question. Then he was buried. Normally we don’t ask why someone who has died is buried. That is almost obvious, is it not? But this burial is not. After all, why could he not have gone from the cross straight to heaven right after he died? That would have made an impression! On top of that, a crucified person did not get a funeral. That is another reason why this question makes sense. Third question: we too must die. We count on that. But why should we? Christ has died in our place, has henot ?
The purpose of these questions is not to satisfy our curiosity, but to gain deeper insight into the work of our Saviour.
Why Jesus Had to Die and Be Buried
While hanging on the cross Jesus finally cried out, “It is finished.” Yet He died immediately afterwards.1
Why did he still have to humble himself to death? Did that not detract from his impressive statement that all had been accomplished? No, because when he said this he did not mean that the end point of his suffering had been reached but that the depth of it had passed. That low point was when he cried out that God had forsaken him. That most difficult point was past when he died. From this Jesus could understand that God had accepted his sacrifice, even though he was still hanging on the cross and had to die. We stand here at the edge of a deep abyss.
We do not presume to be able to describe the course of all those arduous moments. Yet with all reverence we can say that there was a progression in his suffering and that in his dying he was no longer as deeply forsaken by God as he had been a short time before. His final words were: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” That was a line from a Psalm that speaks of deep fellowship with God.2
As Jesus died, this fellowship appeared to have returned. God again stretched out his hands to the Son who placed his life in them. In his death, this was the crowning of his already accomplished work.
In the meantime he had to die. He yielded the spirit. All four evangelists make mention of it.3
He himself later said it as well, “I died.”4
That too was part of his humiliation.5
But it also was a necessary humiliation. Whoever is burdened with sin must irrevocably die. After all, God had proclaimed in paradise that sin would result in death.6 And it cannot be any other way for God than to do what he says. That is what the Bible calls his justice: he makes his words come true. That is why Jesus had to die “because of the justice and truth of God”. That is why he, who had already passed the deepest point of hell, still had to humble himself to death. God had spoken serious words: “Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely will die.” He kept his word. No mortal can escape that even today. That is why everyone faces death. Unless it is absolutely certain that Jesus has fully borne this punishment that was intended for us. That punishment includes humiliation unto death. Did Jesus undergo that? We have to know for sure. There is no way that we can breathe a sigh of relief before that. Fortunately we know this for sure!
As proof the Catechism mentions his burial. We are not just thinking of that fact in itself. The fact that someone was laid down in the niche of a rock tomb — even if it is far-fetched — did not exclude the possibility that he could have been in a state of suspended animation and later escaped from the tomb. But that is excluded here: for this burial Pilate would never have given permission if he had not known for sure that Jesus was dead. The convincing report of the soldier’s spear thrust will have been communicated to him.7 Moreover, Joseph and Nicodemus would not have buried Jesus if they were not completely convinced of his death.
We can rest assured. We may rely on him who had died. He was dead and was buried. These incontrovertible facts support our certainty that our sins have been fully paid for.
Then Why Do We Still Have To Die?
Jesus died for us. So we do not have to die anymore. Everyday practice refutes this conclusion. But where is the mistake in the reasoning? Because when someone has paid a bill for me I do not have to do it anymore. Jesus paid my debt, by dying for me. And paid means paid. Surely God does not want a double payment, first through Jesus’ death and then again through ours?
It is as if the Catechism does not know what to do with the question as to why we still have to die, and tries to hedge the issue somewhat. It says in this answer that our death is an entrance into eternal life. We believe that wholeheartedly: life continues on, right through death. But in the meantime, we are talking about our death. We have to die. Do we really have to? What about Enoch and Elijah, who went to heaven without dying? Why not us? And if Jesus would return as we are reading this, we too would not have to die. Otherwise we will. Why?
Yet the Catechism does have an answer to that question but it gives it somewhat casually and we have to do some digging into it ourselves. It is found in the words: “our death puts an end to sin”. This indicates that as a rule there is only one way to get rid of sin: through death. That is how deep-seated it has become intertwined in our lives. The same was true of Enoch and Elijah. In his sovereignty God can make exceptions. But that we must die impresses upon us how inseparably sin is intertwined with our earthly existence. The last link with sin is removed only when the last link with this life is also broken. Before that, we cannot get rid of our sin, no matter how we might fight it.
It is, as it were, in our DNA. It has infused us through and through. But it needs to disappear radically. As we are presently, we cannot enter the kingdom. There is not a chance. That explains why we must die because flesh and blood — that is what we are now — cannot inherit the kingdom of God.8 Death never becomes our friend and it remains the last enemy we face.9 But death cannot demand payment for our sin. It has nothing left to claim. Therefore, its strong grip on us has been lost. In dying we are cut loose from our earthly and sinful existence. Death cannot accomplish more than that. Immediately afterwards it must let go of us, allowing us to pass on into the eternal life.
And so we can live — and die — in the joy of this comfort!
The Grave Or a Place To Sleep?
That fact that Jesus was buried is important to the Catechism because it proved that he had really died. That is all.
There is not a word about the significance of his burial for us. Many have expressed their disappointment about that. Were we not used to it from the Catechism? It did explain what it means for us that Christ was born, that he suffered, was condemned by Pilate, was crucified and died. Later on it will pick up this thread and we will also hear what it means to us that he descended into hell. But the fact that he was buried seems to have no direct meaning for us. After all, it is no more than the proof that he had really died.10
Did the Catechism deviate from its own course here? In our opinion, this is more appearance than reality. That it does not call any special attention to our burial is obvious. We must take into account, that this Lord’s Day emphasizes that through death we move directly on to eternal life. The spotlight focuses on the path on which we continue to live without interruption. As if by itself, our buried body — which for the time being gets switched off and perishes — stays out of the picture. However, this does not now imply a silent admission that our dead body is also at a dead end! That is out of the question. Because the burial of Christ has indeed completely changed the position of our buried bodies. No one less than the author of our Catechism, Ursinus, makes some beautiful remarks about this in his commentary on this Lord’s Day. He says that Christ has ensured that our graves are no longer graves or tombs but that these “serve as places to sleep [Schlafzimmer], where we shall rest until we are raised to life again”.11
This illuminating metaphor is not too bold. When Lazarus lay in his grave, Jesus said he had fallen asleep. That word was more than a euphemism to indicate death. Coming from Jesus’ mouth it signified that the dead are as accessible to him as when we call someone to wake up because it is time to get up.12
A bedroom serves to rest and to emerge refreshed. Something similar but so much better awaits our buried bodies. The graves will be closed only temporarily and our Saviour has the keys to them. Soon the trumpet will sound. At that sound the dead will awaken. Then the dead body will have finished its sleep. And it will come forth, free from all imperfections. The Catechism comes back to this in Lord’s Day 22, QA 57.
Question 43: What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?
Answer 43 : Through Christ’s death
our old nature is crucified,
put to death,
and buried with him,
so that the evil desires of the flesh
may no longer reign in us,
but that we may offer ourselves to him
as a sacrifice of thankfulness.
Is the Catechism still not satisfied? It has explained how Christ saves our lives from A to Z. From the cradle to the grave, yes even before and after that. He covers my sin in which I was received and causes my end of life to be an entrance into eternal life. But the question still remains: what else is the value of Christ’s sacrifice? This is not a matter of dissatisfaction. It is wonderful that Christ has paid all our debts so that we are reconciled to God both at birth and at death. But the question of “further benefit” refers to something else: our wrongdoings are covered by Christ, but are they also dealt with? Does his death actually bring about any change to our way of doing things? What does his sacrifice mean for the practice of our lives?
Having Died With Christ
Christ did not hang on the cross alone. Our old nature hung there with him. He had taken it over from us, right into his death. That is why our old nature died with him and was also buried with him. Our old nature: that represents all of our evil desires put together. So are they now dead and buried?
Yes and no!
Paul explains it to us. He states that we have died and have been buried with Christ. That is a fact and not a wish. Neither is it a half-fulfilled ideal. It is the unshakeable starting point for every Christian: I died with Christ and was buried with him. And therefore by rights I am free from sin.13 Therefore it no longer has a hold on us.
Pointing to the cross of Christ, Paul says that it must be an established fact for us that we are dead to sin. Sin is not dead but we must be dead to it. It needs to be, as it were, empty air to us. After all, our old nature has been crucified together with Christ. And from that certainty that our old nature has died, Paul exhorts us: Let not sin therefore have dominion over you to obey its passions.14 We need to become what we already are through Christ. We cannot do this in our own strength. But we draw courage from Christ’s death on the cross. Therein, and not in our good intentions, lies the unique power that can save us. The power of Christ: divine power. Only in this way is our old nature crucified, dead and buried with him.
But now let us look at actual practice! Evil desires and passions drag us down every time. What does it mean, then, that our old nature died and was buried with Christ? Yet he was killed on Calvary. That remains the reality, even when we fall into sin on account of our weakness. That is why this is called the unshakeable starting point for every Christian. We never slide back further than to the foot of the cross. That is where Christ catches us. After every fall we end up there. There our debt is cancelled every day and where Christ gives us the strength every day to offer ourselves to him “as a sacrifice of thankfulness”.
Question 44: Why is there added:
He descended into hell?
Answer 44: In my greatest sorrows and temptations
I may be assured and comforted
that my Lord Jesus Christ,
by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony,
which he endured throughout all his sufferings
but especially on the cross,
has delivered me
from the anguish and torment of hell.
Several questions might be asked about Jesus’ descent into hell that we cannot answer with certainty from history. Because these questions are being asked time and again, we want to say something about them.
Did Jesus Literally Descend Into the Place Of Hell?
Did Jesus, after his death, literally go down into hell as either deliverer or victor? The difficulty is that the NT does not have the expression “descended into hell”. So we cannot verify what that means according to the Bible. Many have thought that especially 1 Peter 3:19 would be referring to a journey of Christ into hell, but this cannot be determined with certainty.17 Incidentally, it remains somewhat suspect that this fundamental text was only explained in this way in the third century at the earliest. For at least two centuries, the church apparently did not think at all of a journey of Christ to hell or to the realm of the dead.18 This leaves us with the question as to what motivated the church to include this mention of Jesus’ descent into hell in the Twelve Articles.
A Later Addition – But When and Why?
The oldest editions of the creed did not even mention that Jesus had descended into hell. We do not know when it was added. These words started to appear in some editions of the Twelve Articles at least around the year 350 AD. More importantly, we are also not sure what compelled the church to include them.See Christian Encyclopedia, “Descended into hell”. 19 The suspicion has been expressed that these words mean to say once again and in another way that Christ was buried.20 “Hell” and “grave” would mean the same thing. “Descending into hell” is then the same as “going down into the grave or being buried”. This explanation does not satisfy. Why did the clear word “buried” have to be clarified by an expression that could be interpreted in multiple ways?
From the perspective of church history, no clear answer can be given as to why the church included these later words in its confession.
What Is Clear
There remains a great deal of uncertainty. However, this does not mean that the expression is like a foggy mirror. The main issue is not whether we know exactly what the church originally meant by it. Indeed, we do not know this. But it is more important for a confession whether a biblical interpretation of its words can be given. After all, then it functions like a bright mirror that reflects the light of the gospel. That is the purpose of a confession. And the words “he descended into hell” meet this requirement when we explain this expression as Calvin did, and in his footsteps also the Catechism. That Jesus descended into hell then implies that hell — so to speak — came to him. Especially when God had left him. At that point it was hell on earth for him. Jesus went down into that hell. What does this mean for me? The answer is rather impressive.
Delivered From Hellish Terror and Pain
Fear comes in many different forms: fear of dying, failure, the future, surgery, pain, of going to work, answering the phone, going to church: what will people think? But “temptations” are fears of a separate kind. They can make me desperate because they make me doubt and despair about whether God is still holding on to me. Oh, that feeling as if he has let go!
In times of such anguish the Catechism takes me to a rich source. From that source I may draw great comfort. What is the source, or well, into which I can lower my bucket? It is in the gospel, which speaks of the unspeakable anguish, pain, terror and hellish agony in which Christ was immersed — “especially on the cross”.
But he experienced all that hellish torment for me.
However bitter my suffering may be, that is what I am saved from.
My greatest temptations are no longer hellish temptations.
Even in moments of utter despair nothing and no one can separate me from God’s love.