By Rev. Nate Wilson
My attention has been direction to an article from the late Rodney Stortz (www.oaksonline.org) objecting to the use of “He descended into hell” in the Apostle’s creed. He quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, saying that this phrase was not original to the apostle’s creed but was added in the late fourth century. He suggests that Irenaeus may have been the impetus behind the addition of his phrase. The concern is that this phrase confuses people.
The confusion with this phrase in the Apostles creed more probably comes from failing to recognize the breadth of meaning of the word Hell, translated in the Bible from “Sheol” in Hebrew and “Hades” in Greek. Hell/Sheol in the Bible does not designate any more than the state of the dead; it is used to designate the afterlife of both the righteous and the wicked. However, in evaluating this statement in the creed, we need to determine if the Bible says that Christ descended and if He descended into hell. Only then can we pass judgment on the Apostle’s Creed.
The “descent” of Christ (other than His walking up and down hills) is mentioned in the Bible in three places:
Joh 3:13 And no one hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven.
Joh 6:38 For I descend from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me. (vs. 33-58 repeat this phrase many times)
Eph 4:7-12 But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Therefore it says, ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now this “He ascended,” what is it but that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ:
It is clear enough that the Bible speaks of Jesus descending, so this word “descended” cannot be objected to in the creed.
The next question is, Where did Jesus descend, according to the Bible?
The passages in John quoted above speak of the descent of Jesus from His glory in heaven to humanity on earth. This corresponds well with Philippians 2, where the Bible teaches that Jesus emptied Himself and humbled Himself to be found in a human form.
The Ephesians passage mentioned above says Jesus “descended to the lower [part] of the earth.” What does this mean? Psalm 139 speaks of the “lower of the earth” being the womb, and Ps 113:6, Prov 30:14, and Isa 11:4 speak of the “lower of earth” being poor humans, so this could be consistent with Jesus becoming a human – being born of Mary and being despised among men. However, Psalm 63:9 speaks of the “lower of the earth” being the punishment for the wicked (i.e. hell), and there are also other passages speaking of Jesus’ death as being below the earth:
Matt 12:40, (cf Luke 11) “for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
John 12:24: Speaking of His death, Jesus said, “Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die”
Phil 2:10 and Rev. 5:3,13 also speak of the dead as those who are “under the earth” so this phrase, “He descended to the lower of the earth” can well encompass not only Jesus becoming a human but also His suffering the penalty for sin (death) and burial in the ground.
There are two other passages of scripture that imply that Jesus spent some unspecified time in the place of the dead:
10:7 “'Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring
Christ up from the dead).”
The Greek word “abyss” denotes depth as in a “pit” and is exclusively used to describe hell in the NT (Luke 8:31, Rev.11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3)
Acts 2:31- “you will not abandon my soul to hell” (cf Psalm 16:10 Hebrew=Sheol/ Greek=Hades/ KJV=hell). For the soul of the Messiah to not be left in hell, it had to be there in the first place.
I hope that it has been adequately proven that there can be no Biblical objection to the concept that Jesus descended into hell, although this is not explicitly tied together in the Bible as it is in the Apostle’s Creed. The only remaining objection is whether or not to use the phrase in the order in which it is placed in the creed after “He was crucified, dead, and buried.”
The Bible states that Jesus uttered the words “My God, why have you forsaken me? … It is finished” while yet on the cross, indicating that He suffered the pangs of hell (separation from God, which is the punishment for sin) and finished that atonement before his physical body died and was buried. While on the cross, Jesus also promised the repentant thief that they would meet in heaven that day. (“Today you shall be with me in paradise”) Jesus was buried at the end of that day, so His time in the tomb can not be considered as days in hell.
Nowhere does the Bible say that Jesus went to hell after He died, although there are some passages that have been misconstrued in proof of this notion. One is I Peter 3:18ff, but the timeframe of this passage is clearly the time of the flood, not the time of Christ’s death, so it is best to understand Peter as speaking of Noah preaching to people before the flood about the salvation which God was providing through the ark, rather than of Jesus preaching in hell during his death. Colossians 2:14ff speaks of Christ “disarming the powers and authorities and triumphing over them in the cross,” which does not indicate that He did this after the cross, but rather while on the cross. The other passage which has been used in proof of a time in hell after Jesus’ burial is Ephesians 4:8ff(cf. Ps. 68:18). It says “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive,” but again if you look at the words, this triumphal leading of captives was not done while He was descended, but rather fourty days later while He was ascending to Heaven.
There are significant points in favor of keeping the phrase:
It preserves the poetry of Ephesians 4 with “He descended…He ascended”,
It is consistent with actual words that the Bible uses concerning Jesus’ death,
It has been accepted doctrine for over a millennium and a half around the world,
Its omission would create confusion for visitors who are used to the phrase being there and would find themselves out of step with you in the recitation of a truncated creed.
There are also weaknesses to this phrase in the creed:
It is placed out of chronological order after the burial of Christ,
It is redundant to the meaning of “He was crucified, dead, and buried” and therefore not necessary (I Cor 15:3-4),
Its use of the ambiguous word “hell” and the history of the erroneous doctrine of Jesus in hell during His three days in the tomb can contribute to confusion in understanding the meaning of this phrase,
It is not scripture, so as a man-made creed, we are not obligated to consider it free from error.
The pro’s slightly outweigh the con’s in my mind, so if people do not object to it, I would recommend keeping the phrase in the creed and explaining it. However, because of the significance of the con’s, I believe it would be no great loss to remove this phrase from the creed to keep people from confusion.