Apostles’ Creed: He Descended Into Hell

Why does the creed say that Christ descended into Hell? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

If there’s one part of the Apostles’ Creed that’s really problematic and the subject of debate, it’s this one. Some versions of the creed are said to not even include this part of it. Yet since it is in the one that I am using, I will be making some comments on it.

First, if I take Hell in the traditional sense, no. I do not think that Christ went there. Of course, many readers know that I have a different view on the nature of Heaven and Hell than most people do. It would not make sense for me to say Christ descended into Hell.

Yet I do hold to an intermediate state. I think there are several passages of Scripture that show this to be true. Paul talked about desiring to die and be with Christ and about being naked apart from the body. The thief on the cross was told about how that very day, He would be with Jesus in Paradise. (Yet another reason to think Christ did not literally go to Hell unless somehow Hell has become Paradise.)

Also, I think events like near-death experiences have shown that there is something more to man than just his body. These experiences cannot give us the furniture of Heaven or Hell, but I think they do pose a problem for a more naturalistic worldview.

Now there are many views on what happened to Christ. Some theologians have said that He did indeed descend into Hell and this way to release those who were there or else to proclaim his victory to those who were there, which could be two sides of the same coin.

Most of this comes from the passage found in 1 Peter 3:18-22 which is an extremely difficult passage to interpret and some commentaries even have an appendix in the back just meant to deal with this passage. Let’s make sure to keep in mind that while we hold that the Scripture is infallible in what it says, the creeds, as important as they are, are not necessarily. Yet even if we lost this phrase in the creed, it would be up to us to explain this passage of Scripture.

Some meanwhile think that the idea of descending into Hell is just a way of saying that he suffered death. This would be a parallel to the idea of death even if it is mentioned before burial. I really do not find this one persuasive however.

So what is my view? It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t want to do something like read Dante’s Inferno into the Creed. There’s no need to think about Jesus going into Hell to battle the devil one-on-one for instance.

What I would think of it as saying is simply that Jesus went to the realm of the dead, which was often described by the term “Sheol” in the Old Testament. I would be just fine with Him going to where the OT saints were and announcing the victory to lead them then into Paradise where He would be with the thief on the cross.

I am also not firmly settled on any of this as this is a difficult passage of the creed to interpret and there are many facets about this in-between time of Christ’s death and resurrection that we do not know about. Like other blogs, this is one I definitely welcome discussion on if you have your own theory.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


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10 Responses to “Apostles’ Creed: He Descended Into Hell”

  1. Where the Hell Was Jesus and Why Is Baptism So Darn Important? | ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (in Christ Jesus) Says:

    […] First, it’s important to set straight what Peter is seeking to accomplish in his writing to believers who were suffering. In essence, Peter is saying that because Jesus suffered unjustly and rose victoriously and because we are united to Him, there is every reason to expect that believers will share in the same experience, namely, suffering and victory! Just as Christ’s death had a definitive purpose (“for sins”), so too does our suffering, though that purpose is not always readily apparent. It should not escape our notice that vindication is the major theme of this context and should guide us in addressing the following controversies (cf. 1 Peter, Wayne Grudem. See also Nick Peters’ post.). […]

  2. Flagrant Regard Says:

    I believe it was C.S. Lewis who had an interesting concept with respect to ‘time/space’ and the state of unsaved souls. He postulated that all of the souls who lived their lives ‘under law’ (Gentile ‘conscience’ or Mosaic as per Romans 2) entered into the time/space continuum where Jesus’ appearing took place (which may be thought of having occurred in a future-sense as far as we’re concerned).

    There present were ALL the souls of ALL mankind in this place called ‘hell’ (or some level in it) that had ever lived or are yet to live.

    Since God is the master of time and space, I’d like to think this is an interesting approach, though not verifiable by any means. Just like Lewis’ thoughts put out in his book ‘The Great Divorce’, it appears he believed that a fair God would give everyone a fair shake.

    We kinda side with Lewis in some respects, though the Scripture verses that illuminate this whole happening are scant. If I remember rightly, N.T. Wright covers some interesting ‘abode of the dead’ history in the Greco/Roman world in his book, ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’.

    We’ll know when we know. Until then, our God is a trustworthy God whose judgments are fair and just. Amen.

  3. Ronald Dupree (@rgdupree2) Says:

    Mike Heiser’s approach to this passage is the most coherent/contextualized one I’ve seen: http://drmsh.com/2012/04/09/baptism-spiritual-warfare/

  4. jayman777 Says:

    Shameless self-promotion: http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/commentary-on-1-peter-318-22/

  5. Giles Says:

    It always amuses me when Evangelicals say this passage is obscure because they don’t want to believe what it says. Jesus descended into Hades and there preached to the spirits who formerly did not repent in the time of Noah, some of whom (1 Peter 4:6) did repent at Jesus preaching. What about this claim don’t you understand? The NIV scandalously mistranslates 1 Peter 4:6 to say “the gospel was preached to those now dead”. The translators admit the “now” is their interpolation but justify this on the grounds that it can’t mean what it says (that the gospel was preached to the dead) since Hebrews 9:27 rules out post mortem salvation. Yet that verse says only that a judgement follows death. One can’t even identify this with the last judgement without invoking the heterodox notion of soul sleep. I think the evangelical notion of the perspicuity of scripture is self evidently false, but here at least is one place where the meaning is plain to all willing to believe. Why not give it a try?

    • apologianick Says:

      Oh it’s entirely possible, but the problem I have is Jesus also saying that He was going to be with the thief in paradise and that upon His death he entered into the Holy of Holies.

      And I’m not sold on perspicuity either.

  6. Giles Says:

    Thanks. Paradise = Abraham’s bosom. IMO

    • apologianick Says:

      It could be, which would then come the question of how that relates to Hades.

      • Giles Says:

        True. It’s not clear from the parable of Dives if its part of Hades or just visible from Hades. The former seems to have been the rabbinical view as I understand it. It may have been moved elsewhere as a result of the ascension. I overstated in saying we must “just read the passage”. Clearly one cant do that with every single saying without becoming mired in contradiction. I was just ribbing. Thanks for being a sport.

  7. Don Gretel Says:

    Sometime around 390 A.D. a monk named Rufinus added the descent into hell statement to The Old Roman Creed. If I recall correctly Rufinus used Hades to represent the grave, not Hell. So his intent appeared to be Jesus descended to the grave. The Apostles did not write the creed but there are a number of legendary stories about this as the Creed continued its use right up to the present. The Old Roman Creed has been modified in a variety of ways until it settled into today’s Version of the Apostles Creed.
    I am a Bible reader and I have extensively studied 1 Peter 3:19 and Colossians 2:15. Jesus descending to Hell to preach to a limited audience and to declare victory to them makes no sense. First of all as a commentor above mentioned Hebrews 9:27 leads to no second chance for salvation once a person dies. Second, according to scripture God abandons and hardens those who reject him (i.e. the OT Jews) and since John 19:30 says “It is finished,” God would have no need to preach or declare victory to lost souls.
    Even though the NIV may have chosen “dead” over “spirits” in prison, I see no issue with the words chosen and here is why:
    we are taught to read the Bible in context. The context of 1 Peter 3:19 to 21 is Noah’s time. 1 Peter 1:10 says God spoke of salvation and prophesied through the prophets; 2 Peter 2:5 says Noah was a preacher of righteousness, so I conclude that as it says in 1 Peter 3:18 Jesus who was quickened “in the spirit in which…to the in prison spirits…he proclaimed to the disobeying ones” (original Greek). This appears to say that The Spirit-Jesus preached to the antediluvians, unbelievers lost in the flood, through Noah. So those unbelievers were alive during Noah’s proclaiming God’s word, but are dead at the time of 1 Peter 3:19. Now more proof that this is what the scripture is teaching is the fact that verse 21 returns to Noah’s ark as a like figure of the flood referring to baptism. Now to go one step further, verse 21 is not saying baptism saves you, it is saying “not putting away of the filth of the flesh,” “but the answer of a good conscience toward God. now compare this to the message of Hebrews 10:22.
    Finally, The Apostles Creed says “He descended into hell and on the third day he rose from the dead.”. Even if the descent into Hell is correct, The Apostles Creed is wrong. Matthew 12:40 says “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus would be resurrected before going to preach.

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