Why Do We Say, “He Descended into Hell”?

From time to time at Grace OPC, during the worship service, we confess our faith together using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. One phrase in the Creed says of Jesus, “he descended into hell.” Why do we say that? The Bible teaches that Jesus’ soul went to paradise while his body rested in the grave (Luke 23:43). Since that is so, what do the words “he descended into hell” mean?

First, a little background to the Apostles’ Creed may be helpful. The title of the Creed is a bit of a misnomer; the apostles themselves did not write it. However, the formulations of the creed date back to at least the mid-second century A.D., being used as a confession of faith by converts at their baptism. It developed over time until it reached its present form in the late sixth or early seventh centuries.

So, the Creed’s history reaches far back into the early years of the Christian Church, for ages serving as the common confession of faith for God’s people. Thus, though the apostles may not have written it, the Creed enjoys the authority that time and practice give it. And the theology of the Creed is solidly apostolic – the apostles would have said “Amen!” to its doctrinal statements.

But it’s not inspired, and it is natural for a believer to wonder what is meant by saying Jesus descended into hell. Interestingly, it appears this phrase is a relatively late addition to the creed – the earliest version of the Apostles’ Creed containing it dates to 390 A.D. And there’s no question that it has been interpreted to mean a literal descent of Christ into the underworld during the three days he was buried. According to some teaching, for example the traditional views of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, Jesus (that is, his spirit or soul) did actually descend into hell before his resurrection.

Given the uncertain history of the phrase, how it has been interpreted, and the fact that the words on their own seem to describe an actual visit to hell on Christ’s part, is “he descended into hell” really apostolic doctrine, and should we confess this as what we as Christians believe?

In a word, yes, I believe so. That is, if we understand its meaning correctly. Despite how it’s been interpreted, the phrase itself by no means demands a literal descent into the place we call hell. The English word “hell” in the Creed translates Greek and Latin words that essentially mean “the abode of the dead” (they are more general terms for death, not specifying the place of eternal damnation). For this reason, some modern versions of the Creed translate the phrase, “he descended to the dead.”

More importantly, the Bible does not teach a literal descent of Christ into hell. The passage I preached on this past Sunday (which prompted me to write this, since I’ve been asked before about the meaning of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed), 1 Peter 3:18-22, includes the words “… he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (v.19). Those who teach Jesus’ descent into hell have appealed most often to this verse. However (and the verse is admittedly difficult), Peter here is not talking about Jesus’ going down to hell. Rather, he is saying (most likely) that Jesus, by his ascension to God’s right hand (v.22) after his resurrection, proclaimed victory over evil spirits (fallen angels). One cannot be overly dogmatic in interpreting difficult verses such as these, but the fact that Peter says in v. 18 Jesus was “made alive in the spirit,” meaning his (bodily) resurrection, makes it impossible that v.19 could be talking about what Jesus did as a spirit while his body was still dead in the grave. And there are no other passages in Scripture that teach that Jesus “descended into hell.”

So, the phrase itself does not demand a literal descent to hell. And, the Scriptures do not sustain this reading of it. That being the case, how should we understand these words when we say them in worship as part of our confession of faith? The Reformed Church has taught that these words simply refer to the nature of Christ’s death: either they signify the truth that Christ remained under the power of death for three days (Westminster Larger Catechism Q. & A. 50), or they refer to the spiritual torments of God’s wrath that Christ endured – for his people – in his suffering and death (the view of John Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism). The first highlights the truth that Christ’s death was a real, human death; he truly died the death we deserved. The second stresses the truth that Christ suffered the pains of hell that should have been ours because of our sin. Both underline the gospel truth that Christ suffered and died “for us and for our salvation” (to quote another Creed, the Nicene).

So, when we say that Jesus “descended into hell,” we are confessing our belief that the sinless Son of God suffered a sinner’s death, in our place. He endured hell on the cross for us, that we might enjoy the blessing of heaven forever.

Here’s how the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. & A. 44) puts it:

Q. Why does the creed add, “He descended to hell”?

A. To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

Some conservative theologians, troubled by the confusion the phrase has engendered, have argued we would be better off deleting it from the Apostles’ Creed altogether. However, understood rightly, “he descended to hell” testifies to a crucial truth concerning the death of Christ. In my view, it is better to keep the Creed intact, but at the same time teaching God’s people what the words mean.

Pastor Scott

Other resources:

Rev. John Jones of Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Anchorage also has an article about this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed.

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema (whose father, Rev. Rich Venema, was an interim pastor at Grace), wrote a brief commentary on the Apostles’ Creed – What We Believe.