The Merriam Webster’s Deluxe Dictionary, 10th edition, defines deja vu as a feeling that one has seen or heard something before.
I would like to suggest to you that the three ecumenical creeds of the Christian faith fail to recognize that when they confess that Jesus descended into hell, they have failed to identify that this is the second time Jesus descended into hell.
Perhaps it would be better for the three creeds to say, He descended into hell again, or, He descended into hell for the second time. A second time implies a first time. This is what is being advocated in this article. The descent into hell referred to in the creeds is actually our Lord’s second visit to the realm of darkness.
So, when was the first time our Lord descended into hell? Look no further than less than 24 hours earlier, before his resurrection.
Jesus rose from the dead sometime between 6 p.m. Friday, the beginning of the Sabbath, and the appearance of the risen Lord to Mary Magdalene at sunrise (Mark 16:9). It was sometime during this span of time that Jesus also descended into hell to show himself victor over sin, death and the devil.
The sedes doctrina (seat of doctrine) for this teaching is found only in I Peter 3:18-20: For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
However, what happened on Good Friday? What happened on the cross? What happened that would cause our Lord to utter his words, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me as recorded by Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34?
What is Godforsakenness? Where is God not? What is the opposite of the promise to the one thief, Today you will be with me in paradise, as contrasted with those who will not be with him in paradise?
Among all the promises of God’s presence with his people, none is found that would imply that God is present in hell. Hell is where God is not. Withdraw the presence of God and you have hell. Withdraw the spirit of God and you have hell. Withdraw all the attributes of God – love, mercy, grace, etc. – and you have hell.
When Jesus experienced the withdrawal of God’s presence from him while suffering on the cross, it was hell. It had to be! We know the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). If Jesus is the true sacrificial lamb of God, who as John described takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), he would have to endure the punishment of hell – that is, the absence of God – for all people, for all time, times their plethora of sins.
His first descent into hell took place on the cross. His second descent into hell took place after his victorious rising from death.
Because our Lord was forsaken by the father and experienced Godforsaken hell for us, we have the comforting promise that God will never forsake us.
Paul said it so well: I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
And isn’t it interesting that our Lord’s last words to his disciples as he ascended into heaven were: And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
Without the first descent into hell, we would not be able to confess that he descended into hell again.