The Descensus Controversy

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

Did Christ descend into Hell after he died, or was his death on the Cross his Hell?  In the 16th century this question generated a lot of heat in our Church. It was called the Descensus Controversy, and Queen Elizabeth 1st and the authors of our Thirty-Nine Articles were smack dab in the middle of it.

Elizabeth I was crowned Queen on Sunday, January 15th, 1559.  She was 25,  artistic, athletic, strident and shrewd.  She was bestowed with the titles “Defender of the Faith” and the “Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” and took those roles seriously. Matthew Parker was made her new Archbishop of Canterbury, an appointment that said England’s Church would be Protestant.  Parker had been a trusted friend and colleague of former Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer the originator of the first and second Prayer Books. Elizabeth’s Catholic sister Mary had tossed out the Prayer Books and executed Cranmer as a heretic before choking to death during Mass, November 17, 1558. That put Elizabeth on the throne, who unlike Mary, was Protestant, and eager to reinstate Cranmer’s Prayer Book, albeit with some revisions. Parker was the man to do that.

Cranmer`s Prayer Book defined the Anglican Faith through Forty-Two Articles of Religion. Article Three said Christ had descended into Hell after he died. That was his descensus.

Conservative scholars today note that the Scriptures speak of two hells – Hades (or Sheol) where the unredeemed go until the Final Judgement, and Gehenna, where the devil and his angels go, along with Hades, after the Final Judgement.  Article Three made no such distinction.  It simply spoke of Hell, but Hades seems to be the hell it is speaking about.

The original Article Three was somewhat ponderous, and it was definitely controversial. It stated:    

As Christ died and was buried for us, so also it is to be believed that he went down into hell, for the body lay in the sepulchre until the resurrection, but his ghost departing from him was with the ghosts that were in prison, or in hell, and did preach to the same, St Peter doth testify.

But did Christ actually descend to Hell (Hades)? That’s what the Descensus Controversy was all about. On one side were those who said no.  These were largely Puritans in the Church of England who ascribed to the teachings of French theologian and reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).  Calvin held that if Christ suffered any form of hell at all,  it was the hell of being separated from his Father.  The Genevan and Heidelberg Catechisms ascribed to that position too.

Those who said yes, could have cited the Apostles’ Creed that clearly said Christ descended into Hell. The only problem there was that the earliest editions of Creed didn’t say that. The reference to descending into Hell may have been added by that fifth century writer, Rufinus, Bishop of Sarsina.   

The strongest support for the yes side came from Scripture.  A key text was 1  Peter 3:18-20 which the original Article Three pointed to.  This side held that Christ descended to Hades on a mission. The mission was to liberate the souls of the righteous from Old Testament times: Adam, and Eve, Noah and his family, the Hebrew patriarchs who all  died before his crucifixion. The descent was called the “Harrowing of Hell” and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches had depicted the event quite graphically through etchings,  murals, and later, stained glass. 

Archbishop Parker wasn’t about to ditch the traditional Catholic teaching too quickly, in spite of his Protestant sympathies. He wanted the matter studied. He was always fastidious and precise, earning him the cheeky epithet, “Nosey Parker,” the origin of that phrase.  Parker  turned to one of the best Biblical scholars of the day, Thomas Bison, Bishop of Winchester. Bison would later oversee the final editing of the King James Bible years later. 

Bison’s study lent support to the Church’s original position. Yes, he concluded, Christ did descend to Hell (Hades) and John Calvin’s metaphorical interpretation of Christ’s descent was wrong.  Parker got his answer.

Parker and Bison paid dearly for their stance and were relentlessly attacked by Calvinists in Europe and England.  The queen was not amused by the fuss.  In her ire she commanded Bison not to “desert the doctrine” or to listen to those who refused to acknowledge “truth and authority.”    Bison didn’t, and together with Parker revised the Forty-Two Articles with the Queen’s command in mind.

The Articles were trimmed, approved, and republished as the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.  Article Three on the Descent of Christ was merely edited, stating –  As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

The Thirty-Nine Articles have never been revoked and stand as a basic outline of the conservative Anglican Faith.  They can be found on page 698 of our Book of Common Prayer and published commentaries are available.   Among Protestants, the Descensus Controversy continued for some time.

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