f The Wittenberg Door: He Descended Into Hell

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

He Descended Into Hell

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest statements of Christian orthodoxy, believed to be written sometime in the second century. Later, sometime before 700 AD, the words “descended into Hell” were added. Although it is not known who made the addition or why, there are a few theories as to the meaning.

Against Gnosticism

“He descended into Hell” is preceded by “was crucified, dead, and buried.” The addition could be to further the distinction between Gnosticism and orthodoxy: Christ was a physical being Who actually died in the manner of men. He did not swoon, evaporate, or lie in a coma, but physically ceased living with His spirit returning to the Father.

The Reformers

The Reformers believed that this statement refers to Christ suffering the pains of Hell upon the cross. Here’s how John Calvin put it in the Institutes. . .

The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.

(You can read Calvin’s entire comments on this portion of the creed here.)

Although I believe that the Reformers are correct (and when I confess this creed, this is what I have in mind), Christ certainly did suffer the pains of Hell on the cross, I’m still troubled by the use of the term “descended.” If that’s what the author of the text had in mind, why use that term? It doesn’t seem to fit.

Prison Break

Some have tied “He descended into Hell” to I Pet. 3:19:

in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison

I’ve heard two interpretations of this:

  • Christ went not to Hell, but to Abraham’s Bosom, which was supposedly a temporary holding place.

  • Christ went to Hell and offered salvation to those there.

I think there are many with both interpretations (especially the second), but I’m going to pass on that in this post. Instead, I just want to focus on the passage at hand: Does it teach that he actually “descended” somewhere? I don’t think so.

In the versus leading up to this passage (particularly 18-20), Peter is encouraging us to stand strong in faith while enduring persecution for righteousness sake. Noah is an example of such courage under fire. Christ, via Noah’s preaching, is proclaiming the gospel to those living in Noah’s time—those who are now in Hell (i.e., “prison”). This is why Peter says “ . . . He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison”; the sequence is 1) Christ preached (they didn’t listen) 2) now they’re in prison.

It seems to me, therefore, that the context disallows the other two interpretations.


Whatever the reason “He descended into Hell” was added, what I have in mind when confessing The Creed is that Christ suffered the pains of Hell for me. Not only is this theologically supported, it also reminds me that my salvation came at a great price. May our dear savior’s name be praised forever. Amen.

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Blogger TSHusker said...

I love historical posts. Great job with this one!

Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology also addresses this topic in his chapter on the atonement (pgs 586 et seq. in my 1994 edition).

Praise His name forevermore!

Doctrine Matters

12:54 PM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Thanks, Tom! I'll check out Grudem.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

I've read a number of references to Christ's sojourn in the underworld in some of the Patristics. (I'm sorry, I don't remember the exact references.)

There is a story that was not included in the canonical Gospels where Christ called the inhabitants of Hell to follow him to Heaven. According to the tale, all but a few heeded his entreaty.

That story may have been suppressed because it contradicted evangelicals who claimed that anyone born before Jesus was still burning in Hell. There is an extant story of Patrick telling a Druid that the Celtic heroes were all in Hell because they hadn't worshipped Jesus during their life on Earth.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis!

10:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I linked to this post in my weeky "Watchtower" on Knight of the Living God.

3:12 PM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Sophia, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. There are no “suppressed” books. Two reasons: Either the Bible is a book by men about what they believe about God, or it’s God’s book given to men (of course the second is what I believe. If it’s a book by men about what they believe, they didn’t think that the Gnostic texts represented their beliefs, so they left them out. If it’s a book by God, He didn’t have them included because they didn’t represent what He was teaching about Himself. Either way, they weren’t suppressed.

W.E and Aspiring, thanks for the kind words (and the link)!

4:23 PM  

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