The claim that Jesus descended into hell in the Apostle’s Creed

  • Question from GT, United Kingdom

    Before communion in my church we say the Apostles’ Creed, which includes the phrase “He descended into hell” (referring to Jesus). This doesn’t get mentioned all that much when the Easter story is told – where does this bit of information come from, and how much do we know about it? The Apostles’ Creed also includes a profession of belief in “the Holy Catholic Church” – doesn’t this seem a slightly odd thing to be saying in a church that isn’t Catholic? Where does the Apostles’ Creed come from?

    As Christianity spread in the first few centuries after the death of Christ, there arose a need for a statement of belief that defined the ‘gospel’ in clear terms. The fore-runners to the Apostles’ Creed as we know it today are the earliest and simplest ways that Christians arranged their beliefs in a set pattern. Later the Nicene Creed expanded on these simple statements, although technically the Nicene Creed found in many of today’s churches is not the finished article from the Council of Nicea in 325AD, but the longer version, which includes a clause about the Holy Spirit and was ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381AD.

    The origins of the Apostles’ Creed are not known exactly, but creeds with similar phrases began appearing in early Christian liturgies (set, formal words spoken in church services) very quickly. However, unlike the Nicene Creed, which was the product of a gathering of theologians, the Apostles’ Creed was not written or officially approved at any specific time. It gradually took shape and most of it has been part of the liturgy of the Western Church since at least the time of Augustine (354-430) in the fifth century. There was a belief, promoted by Augustine, that the Twelve Apostles (with Matthias replacing Judas Iscariot cf. Acts chapter 1) composed it after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, with each apostle contributing a line or particular statement of the creed.

    The descent into Hell first appeared in a statement of faith called the Aquileian Creed in the fourth century and was obviously an element of popular Christian belief that was deemed important enough to become part of the basic teaching of the Church. It is based mainly on two references in the first epistle of Peter. In 1 Peter chapter 3, verses 18-20, Jesus is described as being “…put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” The ‘spirits’ referred to are viewed by commentators as being either fallen angels or sinful human beings now resident in the underworld. The ‘prison’ has a certain resonance with the Old Testament concept of Sheol, the grave or pit. But the wider context of this passage could mean that those ‘spirits in prison’ were people who heard the message of judgment and failed to repent in the time of Noah. The writer might just be saying that the pre-existent Christ inspired Noah’s ‘message’. (For more on this see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994 pp 589-592).

    In 1 Peter chapter 4 Christ is described as judging the ‘living and the dead’, “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged [equally with living men]” (verse 6). Whether this is a correct interpretation of this verse is open to debate. The writer of 1 Peter may be talking about people who have heard the gospel while alive and then subsequently died. However, in terms of early Christian use of Scripture and given the comment shortly before, this has been interpreted to mean that Jesus’ death was somehow retroactive.

    A heroic descent into the underworld to rescue the spirits of those who had died was a popular theme in the myths of the region and so it was not difficult for early Christians to accept their hero doing the same. The descent into Hell allowed the early Christians to sidestep the tricky question of what happens to those who died without ever hearing the gospel and meant they could confidently proclaim Abraham, Moses, David et al as being in Heaven.

    In fact the whole phrase, in the earliest versions of the creed to include it, use the Greek word ‘Hades’ meaning ‘grave’ rather than ‘Gehenna’, which means ‘place of punishment’. It could be that the original statement was ‘he descended to the grave’, i.e. ‘he was buried’. It is highly likely that somewhere along the line two versions of the creed – one saying ‘he was buried’ and the other saying ‘he descended into Hades’ – were merged, leading to the idea of Christ descending into Hell. There is a Platonic edge to this, with Jesus’ body committed to a grave, while his heroic spirit descended to the (real) grave, i.e. Sheol/Hades/Hell. Medieval theology, which relied heavily on Platonism, could see Jesus’ burial in the garden tomb as representative of his journey to the final resting place of humanity. It would seem that the Biblical ‘support’ for the phrase is secondary with Scriptural passages being interpreted to justify an established and popular doctrine, rather than the other way around.

    There remain some Biblical problems with the idea of a descent into Hell. Jesus’ words to the penitent thief on the cross (“today you will be with me in paradise” – Luke 23, verse 13) imply that Jesus did not descend into hell after he died. In the account in the fourth gospel, Christ’s work is “finished” when he dies on the cross (John 19 verse 30). Again in Luke, Jesus commits his spirit to the Father as he dies (Luke 23, verse 46). These inconsistencies with the idea of a descent into Hell are difficult to resolve, but it is possible to view the phrase as figurative rather than literal – in dying to atone for a world under judgment those who believe can avoid Hell as their ultimate destination.

    The final statement of the Apostles’ Creed is confusing because of how lazy Christians have become in classifying churches. ‘Catholic’ is probably derived from the Greek adverb ‘kath’ holou’, meaning ‘on the whole’ and in terms of the Church it means ‘universal’, ‘widespread’ and ‘covering a broad range’. It soon came to mean ‘orthodox’ as well, as opposed to the many sects that called themselves churches in the early days of Christianity. So, for example Augustine contrasts the Catholic Church, which adhered to the ‘true faith’ with the schismatic Donatist church in North Africa.

    Technically contemporary churches that are referred to as ‘Catholic’ should be called ‘Roman Catholic’ because they adhere to the teachings and apostolic authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. By dropping the adjective ‘Roman’ there is a danger of believing other churches are not catholic. In fact, every church that proclaims the true faith derived from the Bible and the teaching of the apostles as preserved in the traditions of the earliest churches is a Catholic Church.

    I hope that answers a few of your questions about the Apostles’ Creed, GT. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology.

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