John Calvin’s Worst Heresy: That Christ Suffered in HellSep 15th, 2009 | By Taylor Marshall | Category: Blog Posts
Years ago while listening to Hank Hanegraaff’s Bible Answer Man radio program, a caller called in about “Christ suffering in Hell.” Hank rightly explained that “Christ suffering in Hell” is not a biblical doctrine, but noted that the doctrine was held by John Calvin. Hank respectfully disagreed with Calvin.
We can argue back and forth over Calvin’s doctrine of baptism or predestination, but Calvin is a manifest heretic regarding Christ’s descent into hell. He breaks with Scripture and all the Fathers in this regard, and his error deserves more attention, because it shows the cracks in his systematic theology. During my three years at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, nobody wanted to touch this with a ten-foot pole.
So that you can get Calvin in context, I’ve provided the full section from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion Book II, Chapter 16, 10 in full. The red inserts are mine.
But, apart from the Creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgement, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death [What!!! Christ suffered eternal death and the pains the hell!].
We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the “chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” that he “was bruised for our iniquities” that he “bore our infirmities;” [the authors of Scripture and the Fathers apply these prophecies to the crucifixion--not to any penal condemnation in hell] expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them, the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him. Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgement [so the cross as visible judgment was not enough. Christ suffered in hell...] which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price – that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man. [So after suffering in the body on the cross, Christ's soul suffered tortures of the condemned in hell.]
What do we make of this? Essentially, Calvin’s doctrine of penal substitution is the problem (something Catholicism rejects, by the way). If we understand atonement as simply “substitution,” we run into the error that Calvin has committed. Since sinners deserve both physical death and spiritual torment in hell we should also expect that Christ as our redeemer must also experience both physical death and hell. This logic only makes sense–except that it contradicts everything said in the New Testament about Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. The descent into hell was not punitive in anyway, but rather triumphant as described by the Apostles and illustrated in thousands of churches, both East and West (see picture below).
This descent into Hell as Christ’s victory corresponds to the teaching of our first Pope Saint Peter: Christ “proclaimed the Gospel even to the dead” (εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ νεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη, 1 Pet 4:6). Jesus wasn’t burning in the flames! He was dashing the gates of Hell, proclaiming His victory, and delivering the righteous of the Old Testament! That’s the holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith in all its beauty.
This “penal substitution” theory of the atonement is patently false. Christ died for us, but it wasn’t a simple swap. Christ uses the language of participation. We are to be “in Him” and we are to also carry the cross. Christ doesn’t take up the cross so that we don’t have to take up the cross. He repeatedly calls us to carry the cross. Our lives are to become “cruciform.” The New Testament constantly calls us to suffer in the likeness of Christ. Again, it’s not a clean exchange. It’s not: “Jesus suffers so that we don’t have to.” Rather we participate in His redemption. This is also the language of Saint Paul:
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Phil 1:29).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church (Col 1:24).
I would challenge all Reformed readers to slowly flip through the epistles of Paul and note the occurance of “in Him” and “in Christ”. Better yet, use BibleWorks or another Bible program and run a search. You will quickly see that “in Him” and “in Christ” is the universal soteriological category for Saint Paul–not justification or regeneration.
According to Catholic Christianity, Christian salvation involves the vindication of Christ’s unjust death on the cross. God does not “hate” His Son. This is impossible. God does not “turn away” from His Son. Luther introduced this false tension and it has led to Calvin’s grievous heresy. Saint Paul speaks of “overcoming death” as the true victory of Christ – not His being the whipping boy of the Father.
I should stop there and open up the comments:
- Have I depicted Calvin rightly?
- If you’re Reformed, do you agree with Calvin? If so, how does his view not denigrate the cross?
- If you’re Catholic, how has the redemptive model of participation enabled you better understand your own salvation?
If you want to learn more about how Catholic theology stresses the Pauline doctrine of “participation,” please visit The Catholic Perspective on Paul and consider listening to some of the Catholic Paul Podcasts: click here.