Descending into the Descent into Hell

The Symbolum Apostolorum, or Apostles’ Creed:

1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: 2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: 3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary: 4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell: 5. The third day he rose again from the dead: 6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: 7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead: 8. I believe in the Holy Ghost: 9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints: 10. The forgiveness of sins: 11. The resurrection of the body: 12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

The History of the “Descended into Hell” Clause:

Before 390ad, no orthodox Christian version of the Apostles’ Creed used the phrase. Rufinus, the author of the earliest Christian commentary on the Creed that we have, presents it as one of two versions, and he interprets it to mean nothing more than that Christ was buried. The clause does not appear again for several centuries, but by the seventh and eighth centuries, it became a standard part of the Creed, though often debated, even to this day.

For more, see Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, I.II.ii, pp. 14-23, and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 586ff.

Relevant Scriptures:

  • For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” (Acts 2:27, ESV)
  • 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, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience,through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22, ESV)
  • For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40, ESV)
  • And he said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43, ESV)
  • When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30, ESV)

Westminster Confession and Reformed Catechisms:

Westminster Confession of Faith, 8.4.4:

IV. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that He might discharge, He was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption.

Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

Heidelberg Catechism:

44. Q. Why is there added, He descended into hell?
A. That in my greatest temptations I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself with this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agony in which He was plunged during all His sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

3 Pastoral Responses (Click on the name for a Youtube video presenting each view):

  • Mark Driscoll The edited Creed is wrong.
  • Jason Helopoulos WCF and WLC interpret the descent as referring to the time Jesus’ body spent in the grave (hades), and thus the phrase simply hammers home the point that Jesus really died. Heidelberg Catechism interprets the descent as referring to Christ’s spiritual sufferings on the Cross. Both interpretations fit together, describing the fullness of Christ’s atoning work.
  • Doug Wilson∾ The Greek word “Hades” refers to the place where dead souls go, which was divided into two portions: Paradise, and the bad place. “Hel” originally referred to Hades, but the meaning changed over time. Paradise used to be in the heart of the earth, but is now in heaven. Jesus’ atonement took place on the cross, His time in hell did not consist of punishment and suffering.

Summary:

I believe something valuable can be found in each of these responses: first, on Driscoll’s understanding of the Creed, he is correct that such an interpretation as the one he satirizes would be wrong: Jesus did not descend into the place of torment for additional suffering, and it is important not to leave that misunderstanding in people’s minds. For folks of that persuasion, they should either not use the creed or amend it.

But I believe better interpretations exist, and I think Helopoulos’ reasons for continuing to use a potentially confusing creed are wise, which is also why I would not advocate amending the Creed to something less confusing like “hades”. Since I believe the difficulty is not an error, but a matter of clarity that can easily be explained, we ought to honor our fathers and mothers and exercise humility by not amending the creed of the universal church at the local church level. This is simply a judgment call, and one that I am open to being persuaded on.

The Westminster Standards choose another legitimate interpretation, and present a meaningful reason to continue to confess without worry or reservation that Jesus descended into hell. I think the Heidelberg speaks true things about Jesus’ suffering, but I do not believe that the metaphorical reading Heidelberg advances is a good interpretation of the descent clause.

Finally, Wilson presents the most thorough explanation of the many words used for the places of the afterlife in the Bible, and I find his answer convincing, and an even stronger interpretation than that of the Westminster Standards. (I think WCF is correct, but I think we can go further). Paradise is a real place, but it can move, sort of like a church can move meeting locations. When Jesus died, He descended into the good part of Hell (hades) and when He arose, He took Paradise with Him.

And so until Paradise and earth are joined together again on the Great Day, I will heartily confess, and will encourage others to confess, that Christ Jesus descended into hell, but on the third day He rose again from the dead.

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3 Responses to Descending into the Descent into Hell

  1. kyriosity says:

    Do you think there’s anything to the idea of the harrowing of hell (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrowing_of_Hell)? If He brought out all of Paradise, it stands to reason that He brought out everybody *in* Paradise, but does that line up with the idea of the harrowing?

    • I believe that when Jesus descended into hell, He proclaimed His victory to all the inhabitants, and proved it by taking the Redeemed with Him when He left. I think that 1 Peter 3 and Ephesians 4 are pointing to such an event, but if others think differently, God will reveal it to us as we live up to the clearer realities of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension for our salvation. So short answer: yes, there’s something there.

      • kyriosity says:

        Thanks. I’ve always rather liked the idea of Him storming the gates, so I’m glad to know that someone sensible sees it there, too. ;^)

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