Reflecting on the Apostle’s Creed in Dogmatics in Outline, Reformed theologian Karl Barth offers the most incisive teaching I’ve heard on hell when he comes to the line “He [Christ] descended into hell.” Pay attention to his dialectical theology, marked by his “on one hand” versus “on the other hand” reasoning. He doesn’t miss a beat, reckoning with human sin and divine righteousness. The emphasis is always on the right place: the Cross.
Barth’s account of hell is successful because it avoids the pitfall that C. S. Lewis warned against in Surprised By Joy:
While it is true to say that God’s own nature is the real sanction of His commands, yet to understand this must, in the end, lead us to the conclusion that union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it horror. Thus Heaven and Hell come in. But it may well be that to think much of either except in this context of thought, to hypostatize them as if they had a substantial meaning apart from the presence or absence of God, corrupts the doctrine of both and corrupts us while we so think of them.
In the Old and New Testaments the picture of hell is somewhat different from what developed out of it later on. Hell, the place of the inferi, Hades in the Old Testament sense, is certainly the place of torment, the place of complete separateness, where man continues to exist only as a non-being, as a shadow. The Israelites thought of this place as a place where men continue to hover around like flitting shadows. And the bad thing about this being in hell in the Old Testament sense is that the dead can no longer praise God, they can no longer see His face, they can no longer take part in the Sabbath services of Israel. It is a state of exclusion from God, and that makes death so fearful, makes hell what it is. That man is separated from God means being in the place of torment. ‘Wailing and gnashing of teeth’ – our imagination is not adequate to this reality, this existence without God. The atheist is not aware of what Godlessness is. Godlessness is existence in hell. What else but this is left as the result of sin? Has not man separated himself from God by his own act? ‘Descended into hell’ is merely confirmation of it, God’s judgment is righteous – that is, gives man what he wanted. God would not be God, the Creator would not be the Creator, the creature would not be the creature, and man would not be man, if this verdict and its execution could be stayed.
But now the Confession tells us that the execution of this verdict is carried out by God in this way, that He, God Himself, in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God’s judgment is executed, God’s law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God’s Son stands for all others. Such is the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands for us before God, by taking upon Himself what belongs to us. In Him God makes Himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed and guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us. And in this way He makes an end of the curse. It is not God’s will that man should perish; it is not God’s will that man should pay what he was bound to pay; in other words, God extirpates the sin. And God does this, not in spite of His righteousness, but it is God’s very righteousness that He, the holy One, steps in for us the unholy, that He wills to save and does save us. Righteousness in the Old Testament sense is not the righteousness of the judge who makes the debtor pay, but the action of a judge who in the accused recognizes the wretch he wishes to help by putting him to rights. That is what righteousness means. Righteousness means setting right. And that is what God does. Of course without the punishment being borne and the whole distress breaking out, but through His putting Himself in the place of the guilty one. He who may and can do this is justified in the fact that He takes over the role of His creature. God’s mercy and God’s righteousness are not at variance with each other.
‘His Son is not too dear to Him,
He gives Him up; for He
From fire eternal by His blood
Would rescue me.’
That is the mystery of Good Friday.
But actually we are looking away beyond Good Friday, when we say that God comes in our place and takes our punishment upon Himself. Thereby He actually takes it away from us. All pain, all temptation, as well as our dying, is just the shadow of the judgment which God has already executed in our favour. That which in truth was bound to affect us and ought to have affected us, has actually been turned aside from us already in Christ’s death. That is attested by Christ’s saying on the Cross, ‘It is finished!’ So then in view of Christ’s Cross we are invited on one hand to realise the magnitude and weight of our sin except in the light of Christ’s Cross. For he alone understands what sin is, who knows that his sin is forgiven him. And on the other hand we may realise that the price is paid on our behalf, so that we are acquitted of sin and its consequences. We are no longer addressed and regarded by God as sinners, who must pass under judgment for their guilt. We have nothing more to pay. We are acquitted gratis, sola gratia, by God’s own entering in for us (pp. 118-120).