One of the most confusing statements in the Apostles’ Creed (a classic statement of Christian belief) is “He descended into hell.” What does it mean, and what are we supposed to with it?
A Word About Words
The Apostles’ Creed was first written in full in Latin, but drew from earlier statements of Christian belief going back at least as far as the end of the first century A.D.
Some of the confusion about this statement comes from how the Biblical ideas about the afterlife have moved through Hebrew (Old Testament), Greek (New Testament), Latin (early church) and finally, English (us today).
The word used in the Latin versions of the Creed at this point is inferos. From this word we get the English word ‘inferior’, (meaning something that literally or figuratively is ‘below’), and the word ‘inferno’ (usually used to describe a large fire). You might already see a potential source for confusion here!
In the Bible, there is a consistent theme of there being both a ‘place of the dead’, as a well as a final destination of the righteous and the unrighteous dead. So we see a distinction in the Bible between Hell, and Hades (Greek, NT) or Sheol (Hebrew, OT).
In the Old Testament, the word Sheol has a dual meaning, depending on context. It can mean simply the place of the dead (cf. Job 3:13-22), or it can mean the place of eternal punishment (cf. Psalm 49:14).
In the New Testament, these ideas are separated into a place called Hades, which is the place of the dead (cf. Luke 16:19-31), and Gehenna, which is the place of final judgement (cf. Matthew 5:29-30). Gehenna is always translated as “hell” in the New Testament.
In English, however, we have largely lost the idea of a “place of the dead” distinct from either heaven or hell. This is probably due to the Reformation reaction against the Roman Catholic teaching about Purgatory.
The table below might help to summarise all this:
|OLD TESTAMENT (Heb.)||NEW TESTAMENT (Gk.)||EARLY CHURCH (Lat.)||TODAY (En.)|
So, where did Jesus go when he died?
What all this means is that we’re presented with two options of what the Creed means when it says “He descended into hell”. Did Jesus a.) simply go to the ‘place of the dead’, emphasising the fact that he had really died, or b.) did he actually go to the place of final judgement?
The best question to ask at this point is simply, “What does the Bible actually say?”
For a start, there is no reference in the Bible to Jesus ever entering Gehenna. We can, therefore, say confidently that Jesus did not go to Hell in the sense of that place of final judgement.
But there are references to Jesus entering Sheol or Hades after he died on the cross, for example, where Peter quotes from Psalm 16:10 in Acts 2:27, applying that Psalm to the death of Jesus.
So ‘Option a.)’ seems to be the correct one, that Jesus went to the ‘place of the dead’, i.e. that he really and truly died. As Bible scholar Alistair McGrath puts it, “It is a statement of belief that Jesus really did die. For the New Testament writers, Christ was not raised “from death” (an abstract idea) but “from the dead” (Acts 2:24, Romans 1:4, Colossians 2:12).”¹
“It is a statement of belief that Jesus really did die. For the New Testament writers, Christ was not raised ‘from death’ (an abstract idea) but ‘from the dead.'”
In fact, Presbyterian theology has traditionally taught this simple explanation. The Westminster Larger Catechism says:
“Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day (Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:24-27, 31, Romans 6:9, Matthew 12:40); which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.”
But the question doesn’t end here. While some may be satisfied with the explanation above, two more possibilities must also be considered. After all, why would the Creed say that he died, and then say exactly the same thing in different (and more complex) words? Perhaps we are meant to understand something more by “He descended into hell.”
1. Physical and spiritual suffering
The Reformers were quick to point out how the Creed would be redundant at this point if it simply said twice in different ways that Jesus really died, especially if the latter statement added confusion to the former.
For them, it was important in the larger scheme of things to deny Roman Catholic teachings and traditions which had no Biblical evidence, but also to emphasise the reality and extent of what Jesus suffered at God’s hand in the work of atonement and redemption.
“What, therefore, does this descent of Christ into hell signify? 1. It signifies those extreme torments, pains, and anguish, which Christ suffered in his soul, such as the damned experience, partly in this, and partly in the life to come. 2. It embraces also the greatest and most extreme ignominy, which Christ suffered during the whole period of his passion.”²
“Christ descended into hell: 1. That we might not descend thither, and that he might deliver us from the eternal anguish and torments of hell. 2. That he might carry us with himself to heaven.”³
John Calvin (1509-1564) was in agreement:
“The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of what that invisible and incomprehensible judgement which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might not know only that Christ’s body was given as the price for our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”⁴
While Jesus did not face God’s final judgement on the cross, he did face God’s full judgement – separated from his Father, abandoned, and crushed under the weight of sin – and in that sense did face ‘hell’ for us (cf. Isaiah 53:5, 10).
2. Less than hell, more than death
Another view held by Christians for a long time suggests that Jesus died, and after death actually descended to the place of the dead where he ‘did stuff’.
One approach to this idea in medieval times was called ‘The Harrowing of Hell’. According to this belief, Jesus descended to ‘hell’ and liberated the elect who had died since the beginning of the world. This idea was expanded upon in the visual art and drama of the time.
In more recent times, some modern authors such as C.S. Lewis, have suggested something similar:
“The medieval authors, delighted to picture what they called ‘the harrowing of hell’, Christ descending and knocking on those eternal doors and bringing out those who He chose…. That would explain how what Christ did can save those who lived long before the Incarnation.”⁵
Joe Rigney (DesiringGod.com)
“Following his death for sin, then, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges. He liberates Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, John the Baptist, and the rest of the Old Testament faithful, ransoming them from the power of Sheol (Psalm 49:15; 86:13; 89:48). They had waited there for so long, not having received what was promised, so that their spirits would be made perfect along with the saints of the new covenant (Hebrews 11:39–40; 12:23).”⁶
The problem with these suggestions is that the Biblical evidence isn’t conclusive. For one, this view must be reconciled with what Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (emphasis added)
It also seems that the frequent departure-point for these views is a certain interpretation of a puzzling passage in 1 Peter 3:18-22. The verse at the centre of the issue is v19: “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”.
Without going into a whole exposition on this passage, the historical context of what Peter is saying is important. He clearly refers to this occurring “in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (v20). A simple explanation is that the pre-incarnate Christ (i.e. the Word) was present, in spirit, in the preaching of Noah to those who ridiculed the message of coming judgement.
This would have been sure and certain encouragement to those in Peter’s time who were suffering under Roman persecution.
3. A simple mistake
The final possibility for this statement in the Creed is that it is a simple mistake. As we said, the Creed’s origins can be traced back at least to the first century A.D.. But this statement in the Creed doesn’t actually appear formally until about 650 A.D.
The earliest available evidence we have for its inclusion in the Creed goes back to a man named Rufinus in 390 A.D.. He wrote a study of the different versions of the Apostles’ Creed that were around, and noted the following:
“But it should be known that the clause, “He descended into Hell,” is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches. It seems to be implied, however, when it is said that “He was buried.”⁷
Rufinus does, however, try to harmonise this statement with the Bible, and comes to the same conclusion that many in medieval times did:
“He returned, therefore, a victor from the dead, leading with Him the spoils of hell. For He led forth those who were held in captivity by death, as He Himself had foretold, when He said, “When I shall be lifted up from the earth I shall draw all unto Me.”⁸
Dr Wayne Grudem (author of a very widely-read systematic theology) strongly supports the view that the inclusion of this statement was a mistake.
“It has no claim to being “apostolic” and no support (in the sense of a “descent into hell”) from the first six centuries of the church. It was not in the earliest versions of the Creed and was only included in it later because of an apparent misunderstanding of its meaning.”⁹
So, what does all this tell us about the Creed’s statement “He descended into hell”?
At one level, it tells us that this statement has been a source of confusion for a very long time and that the Biblical support for it is not all that clear.
Personally, I think it has the weakest Biblical support of any of the Creed’s “pearls” (as Rufinus called them).
That said, we will never truly know the intention behind this phrase without being able to ask those who first included it and required the confession of it for those who would be baptised as disciples of Jesus Christ. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps in this sense, the Reformers got it most right: saying that Jesus died and was buried, and that he descended into hell, certainly means that he really and truly died a physical, human death.
But it also means that he suffered totally for sin, physically and spiritually, visibly and invisibly, so that we might be reconciled to our Creator.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God,” – 1 Peter 3:18 ESV
¹ p62. “I Believe: Exploring The Apostles’ Creed”, by Alistair McGrath, © 1991, 1997 IVP”
² from Zacharias Ursinus, “Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.”, Question 44. (iBooks.)
⁴ The Institutes of Christian Religion, by John Calvin, II.XVI.10 (p. 516, Calvin – Institutes of Christian Religion, Vol. 1, John T. McNeill, ed. (c) 1960, The Westminster Press)
⁵ cited from “The Harrowing of Hell” by Zach Kincaid at cslewis.com (Accessed: 04 April 2018)
⁶ cited from “He Descended Into Hell?” by Joe Rigney at desiringgod.com (Accessed: 04 April 2018)
⁷ cited from “Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed” by Tyrannius Rufinus, at newadvent.org (Accessed: 04 April 2018)
⁹ p. 594, “Systematic Theology” by Wayne Grudem, © 1994, IVP (I respectufully disagree with Dr. Grudem’s interpretation of Rufinus’ personal convictions about the statement. Saying that a descent into hell is implied by Christ’s burial, rather than by his death, is to suggest a descent into the ‘underworld’. I believe this is born out by subsequent statements in Rufinus’ commentary on the Creed.)