Quick Thoughts – The Apostle’s Creed and Christ’s descending into hell

Thinking-ManI’ve received a reader question from somebody that I love dearly so as I’ve got around 30 minutes of free time to do a little writing, I’ll answer the question.  The question has to do with whether or not Jesus went to Hell after the cross and why the Apostle’s Creed reads that Christ “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna).  The problem is confounded in that not only does the phrase appear in the Apostles Creed, but it also is arguably insinuated in Acts 2:25-31, Romans 10:6-7, Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6 (though due to time I won’t tackle the biblical texts but rather leave that to people who have already done a superior job to my possible offerings).[1]  So how do we unpack this idea and figure out what is going on in the Apostles’ Creed?

Well, let’s start with the Apostles Creed itself.   The Apostles Creed is unlike the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definition in that it wasn’t a creed written by a church council but rather a summary statement of belief that evolved from a Roman Baptismal formula in the 2nd century and was expanded and edited for roughly 5 centuries.  The phrase “descended into hell” didn’t become a standard element of the Apostle’s Creed until at least the mid 7th century.[2]  The first recorded occurrence of the phrase “descended into hell” appears in the version of the creed used in the church in Aquileia that is commented upon by Rufinus in his Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed (written around 404 AD).  A digital and searchable copy of Rufinus’ work is here and he writes on the phrase “descended into hell”, saying:

Those who have handed down the Creed to us have most carefully specified the time at which these things were done, namely, ” under Pontius Pilate,” so that the tradition of these things should never in any respect vary, as though being vague or uncertain. Yet it should be known that the Creed of the Roman Church does not include the words ” He descended into Hell,” nor is this clause found in the Churches of the East. The meaning of the phrase, however seems to be the same as that of the words “He was buried.” (page 26)

So, even in Rufinus’ day there were multiple versions of the creed, some of which did not include the phrase, and even when it was included the phrase “descended into hell” was understood to refer to the grave.  One reason for this would be that in the Old Testament, the place of the dead was called by the Hebrew term “She’ol”, which had a wide semantic range that included the place of post-mortem suffering, the place of post-mortem blessing, and the grave itself.  In the day of Rufinus, She’ol was translated into Latin as inferna.[3]  The person reading the Latin Old Testament (known as the Vulgate) would regularly see inferna used as the term referring the both the place in which the bodies of the dead were placed, as well as the place to which dead people went, and it would have been a relatively common term in the Latin Old Testament (She’ol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Old Testament).

So, I’ll cut the Apostle’s Creed discussion short here since, well, that essentially answers the question.  Now admittedly there’s lots of scholarly ink spilled here on which Early Church Fathers thought that Christ descended into Hell itself, whether or not they thought of inferna as “the grave” or something else, and what Christ did while in the inferna.  This whole debate is interesting, but I’d suggest that the weight of the evidence clearly lies in favor of the understanding of Rufinus; that Christ’s descending into hell simply is another way of restating that he actually, physically died (and consequently was actually, physically resurrected).

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “You got me.  This took more than 30 minutes” Unger

[1] These passages are all thoroughly dealt with by Wayne Grudem and he convincingly argues the conclusion that the idea of Christ’s descent into Hell is nowhere to be found in the scripture.  Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture instead of the Apostles Creed”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 34 no. 1 (March 1991), 103-113.  Also, for a comprehensive take on 1 Peter 3:18-20 (the main text that people appeal to for biblical support on this question), one should pick up William Kelly’s book Preaching to the Spirits in Prison, which goes through all 22 competing interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-20 and gives the passage an exhaustive treatment.

[2] Michael D. Williams, “He Descended Into Hell?  An Issue of Confessional Integrity” Presbyterion 25 no 2 (Fall 1999), 82.

[3] James F. Kay, “He Descended Into Hell,” Word & World 31 no 1 (Winter 2011), 19.


3 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts – The Apostle’s Creed and Christ’s descending into hell

  1. Our small group study came to the same conclusion as we went through 1Peter. Thanks for the referrals. I would like to hear the full argument.

  2. Pingback: Joyce Meyer, Jesus and Scholarly Integrity… | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

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