SPROUL: That’s a question that has been raised many times in church history because the punishment for sin is eternal damnation, and even that’s not adequate. Our rebellion is against God, who is of infinite worth and value, so that our sin is of an infinite variety. Even if we suffer eternity in hell, that can’t really justly fulfill the measure of punishment that is our due.
Obviously, Jesus did not spend eternity in hell. The argument that has been given and advanced throughout church history is that Jesus’ atonement was of infinite value. Being of infinite value, it could cover and satisfy the demand for eternal punishment. Though the atonement was only temporal, the value of the Son of God suffering in our place for our sins—even for five minutes—was such that it would be accepted by God as a sacrifice to pay for the penalty that was our due. The only way that I know to work with that is to look at it in terms of the value of the sacrificial atonement that Christ made.
WEBB: Is that what is meant in the Apostles’ Creed when it says, “He descended into hell”?
SPROUL: In so many cases where you see that statement, descendit ad inferos, there’s an asterisk next to it because that statement is absent in the earliest copies of the creed. Presumably, that phrase, “He descended into hell,” came later on.
There are all different kinds of views regarding what that statement meant. Some say Jesus went to hell on a rescue mission to save the fathers who were in limbo. Others say that He went to hell to suffer the fullness of the punishment of sin. Most people see that as happening between His death and resurrection.
The Reformed view of this matter is that the full measure of hell that Jesus suffered, He suffered on the cross. He didn’t need to go to hell somewhere underneath the earth to suffer. When He was exposed fully to the wrath of God on the cross—Paul labors the point that Jesus became a curse for us—He took the full punishment of hell during the atonement. When He was about to die, He declared, “It is finished,” tetelestai, meaning that the payment has been made. Then He commended His Spirit into the Father’s hand. So, historical Reformed theology would just change the order to say that Jesus “was crucified, descended into hell, died, and was buried.”