By John Johnson
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
His Decent into Hell - descendit ad inferna
We come now to perhaps the most controversial portion of the Apostles' Creed. There have been three basic responses to this phrase. The first is to simply omit it, believing that there is no basis for truth we confess here. The second is to change the phrase to "he descended to the dead," making the argument that the English word for "hell" has more to do with the abode of the dead, than a place of suffering. The third, and perhaps the most scandalous, is to recite this phrase by rote, without giving any thought to the truth that lies behind it. It is my hope that after today we will not do that.
As we consider this phrase in the Apostles' Creed, there are three matters I want you to consider with me: 1) the historical background to the phrase; 2) the possible interpretations of the phrase; and 3) the practical application of the phrase.
The Historical Background to the Phrase
A study of the history of the Apostles' Creed reveals that the phrase "He descended into hell" was a statement that was added to the Creed around AD 390. "He descended into hell" is not present in the earliest versions of the Apostles' Creed, and because of the spurious history of this phrase in the Apostles' Creed, some denominations do not include it, and others consider it an optional phrase that may be omitted.
The phrase "He descended into hell" appears to have been added later in the church's confessional life in order to answer the question, "Where was Jesus while His body was in the grave? What was He doing? What was His ministry?" It also seeks to take into account and explicate four particular passages which touch on the ministry of Christ after His death and prior to His resurrection: the passage in 1 Peter 3:18-19, and 4:6, which speaks of Christ preaching to the souls in prison who are dead; Ephesians 4:8,9, which speaks of Christ descending to the lower, earthly regions; and Psalm 16:9,10, which says "You will not let Your Holy One see decay." Peter also quotes this verse in his sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
As I said before, there are many people who are not comfortable with this phrase in the Creed, and I even know of one individual in another church who, when the Creed is recited, refuses to say this phrase. Some people are uncomfortable because of the spurious history to the phrase. Others are uncomfortable because they don't like the idea of Christ going to hell. Still others are uncomfortable with the phrase because they don't like the idea of hell itself. Peter Kreeft of Boston College has written that "Hell is certainly the most unpopular of all Christian doctrines, and it scandalizes most non-Christians." (Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven, But Never Dreamed of Asking, Ignatius Press, 1999). The idea of damnation and eternal punishment is not popular in our culture today, so some people reject this phrase in the Apostles' Creed because it offends their sensibilities. However, we should remember that Christ talked more about hell than He did about heaven. We should also remember that the Bible says that it is because Christ experienced hell on our behalf that we won't have to, and therefore we can have hope of an eternal future with God.
Although this phrase did not establish itself in the Creed until the 4th century, and although it is not used by some churches, and although many of us do not like any talk of hell, what this phrase in the Creed says is of very great importance, and I believe it can be a cause of tremendous hope, as we shall see.
Possible Interpretations of the Phrase
In my study of the phrase, "He descended into hell," in the Apostles' Creed, I came across five different interpretations of meaning which thoughtful people have suggested over the years. Let's take a moment to look at each one of them.
The first interpretation suggests that the phrase refers to the preaching ministry of Christ mentioned in 1 Peter 3. The suggestion is that the phrase means that after His death and before His resurrection, Jesus went to hell and proclaimed the gospel of salvation to those who had died during the Old Testament era before His coming. Christ gave those who died before His first Advent an opportunity to put their trust in Him for salvation. This interpretation can also be called the "Second Chance" alternative. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 200), an early church father, was one who held to this idea. The passage reads,
1 Pe 3:18-19. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.
The second interpretation is a variation on the first, in that it refers to the preaching ministry of Christ to the dead, but then only to those who in the Old Testament looked in faith for His coming, that is the prophets, patriarchs, and Old Testament saints of Israel could respond to the Gospel. Irenaeus (c. AD 150) and Tertullian (c. AD 200) were advocates of this position.
The third interpretation is what was known in the Middle Ages as "the harrowing of hell." The idea here is that Jesus Christ did not so much descend to hell as invade it, that He came as a conqueror, that He vanquished death, and that He broke the iron bars of hell itself. He rescued the dead in Christ, the saints, martyrs and prophets of old, and they gathered around Him as the victorious king. Satan was conquered forever, and he was committed to his own hell. The gates of heaven were opened to the faithful, and in a vivid, dramatic representation of the final triumph of Christ, victory was won for the believer.
The fourth interpretation is that the phrase "He descended into hell" simply means that Jesus Christ descended to the place of the dead. This interpretation brings to light the fact that the English word "hell" has changed in its meaning since the English form of the Creed was established. The word "hell" originally meant here "the place of the dead." It is suggested that "hell" in this sense corresponds to the Greek word Hades or the Hebrew word Sheol.
To the Jews, Sheol simply meant "the land of the dead." They believed that the souls of all people went to Sheol, which was a gray, shadowy place, in which people moved like ghosts. There was neither light, nor joy, nor color there, and in Sheol people were separated from God and each other. Psalm 16:10 says, "For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol." They viewed Sheol rather like Ellis Island, a place you go to wait to be cleared to move on to your permanent location. This idea is depicted visually in the motion picture Fiddler on the Roof during the sequence called "Tevye's Dream."
Since the 16th century, however, "hell" has been used exclusively to signify only the latter meaning. In this sense, it is more closely related to the Greek word Gehenna, which Jesus used on many occasions to describe the place of God's eternal punishment. The word came from the Valley of Hinnom outside the city of Jerusalem, where, in the ancient days of Israel's history, children were sacrificed to the fire god Molech. When Josiah, the king of Israel, discontinued the practice, he declared the valley a desecrated territory, and it became the city garbage dump for Jerusalem. Jesus used the metaphor to describe life apart from God; it stinks; it smells; there is always a fire burning, and it never goes out. That's what hell is like.
What is suggested in this interpretation is that the Creed was not referring to the fact that Christ went to the place of the eternal punishment, but rather to the place of the dead. In other words, it says that Jesus really and truly was dead. Other scholars counter this notion and say that if that is what the Creed means, it is simply restating what is said prior to this phrase, that Jesus Christ was crucified, dead and buried, and that is redundant. There is no need for the Creed to make this statement.
The fifth and perhaps best interpretation says that the phrase, "He descended into hell," means that Christ bore the penalties and the punishment of hell in our place. John Calvin not only believed that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but also supported this understanding of the phrase, and has provided an excellent summary of this issue:
"But we must seek a surer explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ's descent into hell. The explanation given to us in God's Word is not only holy and pious, but also full of wonderful consolation. If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No -- it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. . . .to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All -- with this one exception: "He could not be held by the pangs of death" [Acts 2:24 p.]. No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! . . . . The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man." (ICR, II, 16, 8-12)
Calvin understood the phrase metaphorically as referring to Christ suffering the penalty of our sins, and that He experienced the pangs of hell in our place.
Practical Application of the Phrase
What can we learn from our study of this phrase in the Creed? I think there are at least three lessons that come to mind. First, this phrase, "He descended into hell," reminds us that creeds are simply summaries of what Christians over the years have understood Scripture to lead us to believe. Creeds are not on the same par as the Bible itself, and they do not carry the same authority. The Protestant Reformers, and in particular Presbyterians, have always emphasized the truth that our minds and our hearts can only be held captive by the Word of God. Unless a matter is clearly spelled out in Scripture, there is room for disagreement, and Presbyterians have always emphasized the freedom of conscience in debatable matters of faith. I like what Richard Baxter, the old English Puritan, once said, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity."
A second lesson I think we can learn is that there is a longing in each one of us to know the answer to questions of faith, but in some of these matters the Lord has chosen to reveal these things to us only through a glass darkly, as it were. There are some phrases that are not crystal clear. There are some passages that are hard to understand. I think that this only reinforces that we can plumb the depths of our faith as Christians for years and years and never reach the bottom. There are some questions of faith for which we will never know the answer until we get to heaven. There are some things about which we can only speculate, and we must leave the ultimate answers to God.
A final lesson I think we can learn from this phrase is that when the Apostles' Creed says, "He descended into hell," we can know that we do not have to go there because Christ has suffered our hell for us. He bore our sins on the tree of Calvary, and He endured the separation and punishment of hell itself so that you and I wouldn't have to. In the Heidelburg Catechism, question 44, it says: "Why is there added: 'He descended into hell?' That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment by the unspeakable anguish, pains, and terror which He suffered in His soul both on the cross and before."
When John Preston, another great Puritan, lay dying, he was asked if he feared death, now that it was so close. He whispered his answer, "No. I shall change my place, but I shall not change my company." It was as if he was saying I shall leave my friends, but not my Friend, for He who died, went to the grave, and even hell itself for me, shall never leave me nor forsake me. What a comfort. What an encouragement.