Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Dealing with the most controversial affirmation of the creed
Returning to the Apostles' Creed, we arrive at the most debated, and in many ways controversial, statement of the creed. We have journeyed together in affirming the virgin birth of Christ, His incarnation, His sinless life, and His atoning death. All of these are fundamental beliefs of the faith. However, we now come to a statement that causes some difficulty for many Christians. Today, we are looking at the affirmation that Christ descended to the dead. The modern wording is presented as:
He descended to the dead.
To be honest, the controversy is not generally in reaction to this phrasing, but to that of the traditional wording of the creed:
He descended into hell.
It is clear why this statement should be troubling to Christians. In fact, a respected theologian has even written that this line should be removed from the creed (an approach many churches have already taken).
Given the difficulty of this statement, I will present a series of questions and answers that I pray will help us to walk through the doctrine of the descent of Christ.
Question one: Is the Apostles' Creed arguing that Jesus went to hell and suffered torment there? The answer is a resounding no! One of the difficulties in this discussion is that our modern Bibles translate many Hebrew and Greek words as hell that do not comport with our modern meaning for that word. We can see an example of that in both Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek). Neither word would fit the idea that most Christians hold in regard to hell. In fact, this is one of the reasons that we chose to work through the modern version of the creed; the wording of descending "to the dead" better captures the original meaning of the creed.
We should be very clear in stating that there was no need for Christ to suffer torment after death. While sin was imputed to His account, He bore that debt (the debt of others, not His own!) on the cross. Christ made this unmistakably clear when he declared "Tetelestai!", which is to say, "It is finished!" Indeed, it was finished; the price of redemption had been paid in full. Christ had suffered on our behalf upon the tree. Again, Christ's suffering in hell is alien to the Apostles' Creed and, more importantly, to Biblical theology.
Question two: What, then, does this creed mean when it states that Christ descended? Quite simply, the early church declared that Christ truly died. This means that His body went into the grave and His soul departed to the place of the dead. While the phrase eventually was translated as hell, the original meaning was Hades. The early church believed that when Jesus died, His soul went to the place of the dead, Hades.
Question three: What is Hades? Hades was simply the Greek word for the place of the dead. It would be roughly equivalent to the Hebrew concept of Sheol. This was the place of the dead for all people- both the righteous and the unrighteous. However, we should not think that this means that they shared the same place within Hades. The concept of Hades held that there were two compartments- one for the righteous, the other for the unrighteous. The first compartment was commonly referred to as paradise (Jews often referred to this as Abraham's Bosom). The second compartment was referred to as the abyss (or Tartarus). To make clear, these two compartments are within Hades, but are separated by a great gulf or chasm. This is the imagery that Jesus seems to be referring to in Luke 16 in the teaching on Lazarus and the rich man.
Note: I should now state the obvious. There is no way a blog post of this length can fully deal with this issue. There are books in print which are solely dedicated to discussing the compartments of Hades as well as the derivation of the names afforded them, as well as the Biblical theology that supports this approach. At the conclusion of the post, I will recommend a couple of books to the reader.
Question Four: Was this view widely held? Given the modern discomfort with this statement, it might surprise us to hear that it was seemingly universally accepted and affirmed in the early church (Bass, 2-3). Even many of the arguments utilized by contemporary theologians (like Wayne Grudem) against the creed do not withstand the historical evidence. For instance, Grudem argues that the descent line is a late addition to the creed. This is basically an argument from silence which is ineffective in this case because it overlooks the fact that the doctrine of the descent was accepted during this earlier period. In fact, Matthew Emerson does an excellent job of addressing this issue (Emerson, 66-75); he points out that most of the statements in the early creeds were added as a defense against heresy. The descent line was a late addition not because it was a late invention, but because it was universally accepted. In fact, many of the churches felt as though this doctrine adequately fell under the statement "and was buried", thus there was no reason to include it as a separate line. It was not until the emergence of Apollinarianism (the heretical movement that states that Jesus, though He had a body, did not have human soul) that this statement began to be added to the creed on a widespread basis. Again, there is much more that can be said here, but I will point you to Emerson for the fuller history.
Question 5: Given that this view was widely held for the first 1500 years of the church, what changed? Quite simply, the combination of cultural change and the Reformation of the church. First, after 1500 years, Hades and Sheol seemed alien to readers of Scripture (even though they are found in the text). Second, vernacular Bible translations and changing word meanings confused the issue over time; Hades was translated as Hell which brought the misunderstanding that Jesus went into Hell and thereby suffered. Lastly, the Reformation, for all of the blessing that it brought, furthered the confusion (for more on this discussion, please see Emerson, 90-94).
It seemed that each of the Reformers had their own take on how to deal with this statement. Luther held the closest to the traditional understanding, seeing it as signaling Christ's great victory over Death and Hades. Bucer saw it as redundant in light of the burial statement, believing it only to mean that Christ was physically buried. Calvin had the most innovative approach. He argued that the descent into Hell was, in fact, Christ suffering, but that it occurred upon the cross. In other words, he argued that Christ had the fullness of wrath poured out on Him on the cross, which Calvin argued is the same as saying that Christ descended into Hell. While it may be a more comfortable way of addressing the issue, it is not without problems. Immediately, we can state that it is an unprecedented approach in the 1500 years which precede it; that alone should give one pause. We can also point out that it simply doesn't address the historical theological position of the church, nor the traditional Biblical underpinnings of the doctrine of the descent.
Question 6: What are the Biblical passages which have supported the doctrine of Christ's descent? To begin, let me mention that, as with most Biblical theological questions, the answer is layered with Scripture. For a full approach, one would have to read one of the books mentioned at the end of the post. Still, I will attempt to offer a quick summary.
Death and Hades are personified as enemies (Revelation 1:18). When people (righteous and unrighteous) died, they went to the place of the dead- often called Sheol, or Hades, or being gathered to their fathers, etc. Even more specifically, they went to a compartment within Hades with the righteous going into paradise (Abraham's Bosom) and the unrighteous going into the abyss (Tartarus). Here, the righteous are in comfort while awaiting the future hope of their being set free by God. The unrighteous are said to be in misery awaiting their future final judgment called Gehenna- which is synonymous with the lake of fire from Revelation 20:10. It is worth remembering that Revelation 20:14-15 states that Death and Hades will be cast into the lake of fire. So, Hades was the common worldview of Jews at the time of Christ.
When Christ came into the world, He took on flesh. This is true, but more is meant than simply a physical human body. In question 21 of Charles Spurgeon's A Puritan Catechism, it is asked and answered:
Question: How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
Answer: Christ, the son of God, became man by taking to himself a true body (Heb. 2:14), and a reasonable soul (Matt. 26:38; Heb. 4:15), being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary, and born of her (Lk. 1:31, 35), yet without sin (Heb. 7:26).
Notice, the catechism states that Christ not only took on a true body, but also a reasonable soul. Christ was born under the law (Galatians 4:4), fulfilling it perfectly, and He went to Calvary as the perfect sacrifice for sin. He was crucified, died, and was buried as the creed affirms. What then? How are we to understand what is often referred to as Holy Saturday? This is the main point of controversy.
The early church affirmed that upon His death on the cross, Christ's body was buried in the grave, while His soul went into paradise in Hades. Again, this was stated because Christ truly became like His brothers (Hebrews 2:17). However, Christ is unique! Because of the incarnation, and the resulting hypostatic union, it is not merely a man who descends, but the God-man. This is essential to the story. Being sinless and God, death and Hades had no authority over Him..."because it was not possible that He should be held by it" (Acts 2:24). Christ went into Hades, took the keys of Hades and of Death (Revelation 1:18), having overthrown their authority and reign over death. In other words, through the atoning death of Christ, Christ stripped the power of the devil over death (Hebrews 2:14).
In this way, Christ fulfilled the sign of Jonah. Jesus is recorded in Matthew 12:39-40 as saying that "no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For 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." This is often taken to reference the burial of Christ, but there is good reason to reconsider that approach. Again, I will recommend the fuller argument found in Emerson's work, but it is good to offer a summary. Jonah is thrown into the sea. The sea is often connected with "the abyss" which is parallel to the place of the dead. At the beginning of the second chapter, Jonah cries out to God:
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said:
“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He answered me.
“Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Jonah 2:1-3
Notice the imagery given in this text. Jonah is sinking into the sea and he cried out saying that he was "in the belly of Sheol", in "the deep", and "in the heart of the seas". Emerson makes the case that these were all ancient references to Sheol. Again, the sea, especially the heart of the sea, would bring up negative connotations with its connection to the Abyss. How negative is the imagery of the sea? Revelation states that the beast comes from out of the sea (Revelation 13:1); further, it testifies that in the new heavens and earth, there will be no more seas (Revelation 21:1). Again, the imagery of the sea in apocalyptic literature fits well with this argument as being a place of chaos and death. As Jonah went into the heart of the sea, Christ went into the heart of the earth (under the earth...again, a common phrase for Hades). Furthermore, He promised that, in this sign, He would return from the heart of the earth. To triumph over Death and Hades is a sign of the efficacy of Christ's work as well as its acceptance by His Father.
Question 7: What did Christ do while in Hades? Christ, while in Hades, preached to the disobedient spirits in prison in Tartarus (I Peter 3:19-20). Christ was in Paradise, but Luke 16:23-30 presents the idea of communication across the gulf (or chasm) that exists between the two compartments in Hades. What kind of preaching was this? It was the preaching of the Gospel message that Christ has died for sinners, delivering His people, and defeating Satan, Death, and Hades. It should not be thought that this was an additional postmortem opportunity for salvation, but a declaration of vindication to the righteous in paradise, and a message of corresponding judgment upon the unrighteous in Tartarus.
Furthermore, the early church affirmed that Christ, now holding the keys to Hades, led His people (the Old Testament faithful) out of Abraham's Bosom and into the place of the presence of the Lord (Ephesians 4:8). Again, Paul confirms in the following verse (Ephesians 4:9) that this ascension follows Christ's descent into the lower parts of the earth (another synonym for Hades). Not only does this fulfill the promise of God to the Messiah that He would not "leave my soul in Sheol"( Psalm 16:10), but extends it to fulfill the hope of all of the Old Testament saints.
Now, because of Christ's atoning and victorious work, the Old Testament saints are in the heavenly places (a new and much better paradise) with Christ Jesus. There, they are joined by the saints who die in the faith. For this reason, the saints, now living, can look at death in a new light for death "has truly lost its sting" (I Corinthians 15:55) for we know that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8).
What are the objections?
In most sermons or discussions on this subject, the common objections are in regard to the seemingly late addition of this statement to the creed. We have already answered that charge. Secondly, they often mistake the statement to say that Christ suffered in Hell. Again, we have answered that charge. Third, they will mention Christ's promise to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 that "today you will be with Me in Paradise." Not realizing that Abraham's Bosom was often called paradise (paradise itself has an interesting etymology), they wrongly state that this traditional doctrine is in conflict with what Christ stated. Fourth and finally, there are differences in interpretation on the exegesis of some of the Biblical passages. It should be noted that the counter-interpretations are no more intuitive (and are often far less).
Again, this is the only part of the creed that carries any controversy, but that controversy is on a doctrine that appears to have been universally held by the church for 1500 years. The early church was enthusiastic about this belief. That Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, died upon the cross. That His death was real, not a fiction. That His body went into the grave and His soul departed to Hades. That there, by virtue of His sinlessness and His divinity, He conquered Death and Hades, taking the keys to its gates. In doing so, He freed His righteous saints, leading them into a new and better paradise, where they (and the New Testament saints) await the ultimate paradise- our resurrection and the new heavens and earth. It is a doctrine based on God's eschatological faithfulness and our joyful hope in the Lord. It is also a reminder of the severe judgment that awaits all those who are outside the ark of faith in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Works Cited (and Recommended):
Bass, Justin. Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ's Descent into the Underworld. Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2014.
Emerson, Matthew. He Descended to the Dead: An Evengelical Theology of Holy Saturday. Downer's Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2019.