Q 40. Why did Christ have to suffer death?
A 40. Because God’s justice and truth require it: nothing else could pay for our sins except the death of the Son of God.
Q 41. Why was he “buried”?
A 41. His burial testifies that he really died.
Q 42. Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?
A 42. Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.
Q 43. What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?
A 43. By Christ’s power 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 offer ourselves as a sacrifice of gratitude to him.
Q 44. Why does the creed add, “He descended to hell”?
A 44. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.
The narrative of Christ’s death is, bar none, the most horrific thing that could have possibly happened to a human being. Our emphasis on the events of Jesus’ last 24 hours on earth is rightly placed and the sorrow that we feel is certainly warranted for all that happened. He endured hell on earth for us, experiencing the physical pain of torture beyond that of what many humans could bear. More than that, however, He bore the spiritual burden of divine abandonment, crying out to God and hearing nothing but silence for what would be the first and last time in all eternity.
It is as much a fact as any that this act, and all of the details that come with it, cannot be overstated. It is, hands down, the most horrific and the most loving thing we could ever talk about.
That said, it is important that we don’t dwell on the details. Conversations, sermon topics, and even the media that we are exposed to in this time often focus on these events whilst tagging their description with a hollow “He did this for us” comment that comes with a minimal explanation at best. The Catechism, however, makes sure to answer some of the natural questions surrounding Jesus’ sacrifice as well as rightly emphasizing the purpose of this act, not simply the details.
Jesus suffered through all of this not simply for the purpose of taking on our sins, but also for the purpose of dying to pay for them. Scripture says, “The wages of sin is death.” Therefore, Jesus, to fully pay the price, had to die. He was buried to testify to this death. In the same way that, when you get pulled over by a police officer and are given a ticket, and for that to be resolved you have to pay the fine, so too Jesus paid the price for us by dying.
In doing this, Jesus took on our sins so that, as Scripture says, our old selves would be crucified with Him and buried with Him. All these things that seek to control our lives, the sin that keeps us in bondage, it was all nailed to the cross with Him; driven into Him like the nails in His hands and feet.
The Catechism also addresses the question of “hell” as it relates to Jesus. There has been a considerable question about this over the years, wondering what this actually meant. When the Apostles’ Creed was originally drafted, the word “hell” didn’t appear. Instead, the word “dead” was present. However, at some point, this was replaced by the word “hell” thus giving us this question to consider. Perhaps this is just another way of signifying that Jesus actually died; “hell” or “hades” is often considered to be the realm of the dead. It is also possible that using this terminology, also draws our attention back to the suffering and anguish that Jesus experienced on earth and especially going to the cross. Both are certainly good thoughts.
One thing theory that has been put forward with regards to this phrase is the idea that Jesus actually went to Hell, the place separated from God where sinners are eternally tormented. What He would have done there is up for some debate. Did He witness to the sinners there trying to save them? Did He experience more torment and suffering?
In considering a question like this it is important for us to remember that the Creeds and Confessions, like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Apostles’ Creed, are both witnesses to Scripture and not Scripture themselves. So, what we need to do here is look to Scripture to gain some clarity. It is safe to say that the Bible doesn’t give any real indication that Jesus was actually in “Hell” as it pertains to a location, the realm of the devil. It also gives no indication that Jesus was witnessing to people in that location. In fact, Jesus, while talking to the repentant sinner on the cross, says, “today you will be with me in paradise.” A phrase like this would seem to be proven false if indeed Jesus went to Hell on that day.
Indeed this question seems to be related to question 42 regarding why it is that we still have to die if Jesus died for us. The Catechism is fairly clear that our physical death becomes our entrance into eternal life and puts an end to our sinning. You may not hear this preached much at a funeral but it is none the less true. Whereas some people battle cancer until they can fight no longer and gain victory through death, all of us fight the battle with sin until, at some point, we claim victory in death. Everyone who passes on to glory no longer deals with thoughts of lust, jealousy, or resentment. All of those things pass away too.
Jesus too experienced this moment, having taken on the sins of the whole world, put them to death with His own death that we would experience eternal life through faith in Him.