Heidelberg Catechism: Lord's Day #16


Welcome to the Cornerstone Baptist church podcast. My name is Justin Wheeler, I am the preaching pastor for Cornerstone and today we are in week 16 of our journey through the Heidelberg Catechism and I will be talking to you today about questions 40-44.


Today, we are talking about death and Hell. Particularly, we will be talking about Jesus’ death and whether or not he actually descended to “Hell.” Over the last 15 weeks of working through this Catechism, I have received more questions about this topic than any other. The Apostle’s Creed contains a phrase that is more than a little strange when you think about it.

Here’s the phrase in question…

I believe…in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; (here it comes) He descended into Hades; the third day He rose from the dead;

Now, you may already know this, but that little phrase, “He Descended into Hades (or Hell in some versions),” is the most contested line in the creed. What does it mean? It is true? Should we just leave it out or is there a way to understand this phrase that is helpful to Christians today? We will discuss that in a minute.

But for now, let’s get started this week by looking at question #40.

Lord’s Day Focus...

Question 40: Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer death?

Answer: Because, by reason of the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no other way than by the death of the Son of God.   

The first few questions this week are fairly easy for us to answer and understand as they make plain what Christ accomplished for us when He died. Question 40 is asking why did our Messiah have to die? What was the point of it all and what did His death accomplish?

Jesus death was necessary because He had come to save us from our sins and the proper payment for sin is death. “For the wages of sin is death…(Rom 6:23).” But this goes back even further in Scripture, all the way back to Genesis 2. When God gave Adam the instruction about not eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He issued a warning that if they did eat from its fruit they would surely die.

Death is the just penalty for sinning against the law and commands of God. So, why was it necessary for Christ to suffer death? Because God’s justice demands it. In order for Christ to save us from our sin, He had to die for our sin, and that is what He did.

Question 41: Why was He buried?

Answer: To show thereby that He was really dead.

This is perhaps the easiest question we will answer this week as it simply makes sense. A person is buried to show that they are dead, truly dead. Over the years, there have been some theories floating around among other religious groups that Jesus didn’t actually die. Some claim that He simply passed out and then later revived in the tomb and pushed His way out.

Even in the NT, there is evidence of early Jewish stories aimed to deny that Jesus died. You can read about this in Matthew 28:11-15. But the simple reality is that Jesus was buried because He actually died.

Here’s what the gospel of Mark says about it…

Mk 15:42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.

Question 42: Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?

Answer: Our death does not pay the price for our sins. Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.

This is a great question, but again there is plenty of Scripture at our disposal to help us answer this. Death is our entrance into eternal life. In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul says, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

Christ died in our place to pay the price for our sins, which means that our death is not paying the debt we owe to God. But death is necessary as it frees us from this world and allows us to enter into the eternal life that Jesus has purchased for us. But the catechism also points out that death is something to celebrate as it puts an end to our sinning.

As I grow older in my faith, and hopefully more mature and closer to Jesus, I have a deepening sense of my own sin. I see sinful impulses in my heart that I am ready to be freed from. I battle temptations that I would rather not have to battle. My flesh is weak and death will put an end to my struggle with sin and temptation.

Question 43: What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?

Answer: Through Christ’s death our old selves are crucified, put to death and buried with Him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us, but that instead we may dedicate ourselves as an offering of gratitude to Him.

This question and answer seem to have been pulled completely from Paul’s logic in the book of Romans.

Rom 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

And then more from Romans 12…

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

By faith, we are united with Christ in ways that we need God to reveal to us and that is exactly what Paul is doing in Romans. God is revealing to us, through Paul, the amazing connections that we need to draw from our relationship to Jesus. Not only have we trusted in Jesus but we have been united with Jesus in a death like His, in a freedom from sin, in a resurrection like His.

Therefore, understanding the awesome truth of how Jesus’ death has been applied to our souls and life, we should be all the more desirous to live the rest of our lives on earth as a living sacrficie of praise to Him.

But finally, let’s look at question 44.

Question 44: Why does the Creed add, “He descended to Hades?”

Answer: That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ, my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of Hell.

To make sense out of this question let’s talk about some history. The phrase “descended into hell” doesn’t’ appear to have been part of the earliest form of this creed. It occurs in only one version of the Creed prior to AD 650 and in that version the phrase was understood to mean that Jesus “descended into the grave.”

Personally, I think this is the best way to understand the phrase, but there is still a small problem and it has to do with the fact that the phrase just before it says that Jesus was “crucified, dead and buried.” So why would the Creed state that Jesus was buried and then add another phrase to say that same thing by pointing out that He also descended into the grave. I assume that you can see the dilemma.

But what is so bad about Jesus going into Hell? For starters, Hell is a place of punishment for sin and the NT understands that Jesus’ endured the punishment for our sins on the Cross. Since hell is a place of punishment this would mean that Christ’s death on the cross was not enough and that he thereafter needed to descend into Hell to finish the job. This idea doesn’t hold up to the rest of the NT teaching.

In fact, John Piper has argued,

“There is no textual basis in the New Testament for claiming that between Good Friday and Easter Christ was preaching to souls imprisoned in hell or Hades.”[1]

Piper goes on to argue that the church today should omit the phrase “descended into hell” because it causes too much confusion and it is not supported by the rest of the NT. But others, including John Calvin, have said that there is a way that we can understand this phrase so that it helps us.

Calvin would have us understand this phrase not in the sense that Jesus entered Hell in reality but that He entered it spiritually. Not only did Jesus endure the physical pain and suffering on the cross, but he also endured the pain and torment of separation from His Father.

Calvin writes, “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him not to be heard.” This can be a comfort to us because it tells us there is no hellish experience that we can have in this life where Christ cannot identify with us and offer us comfort as one who has made it through to the other side.

In other words, you can read this phrase and understand that Jesus’ death on the cross was more than physical, it was spiritual. When you remember this fact it can comfort you in your spiritual trials, knowing that you are loved and kept by the One who has faced something even worse.

Thanks for joining me today as I discuss the Heidelberg Catechism. I hope you’ll join me again next week as we look at Lord’s Day 17 together and discuss question 45.


If you want to learn more about Cornerstone Baptist church, you can find us online at Cornerstonewylie.org. You can follow us on Twitter or Instagram @cbcwylie. You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/cornerstonewylie. You can also subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or google play to stay up to date on all the new content.

Thanks for listening.

[1] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/did-jesus-spend-saturday-in-hell--2

Justin Wheeler

Pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Wylie, TX.