Updated: Aug 28
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 dea