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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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.

Bearing the Pains of Hell

John Calvin believed that this statement refers to Christ suffering the pains of Hell upon the cross. Here’s how he 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 Calvin was correct (and when I confess this creed, this is what I have in mind), that Christ suffered 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 problems 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.

--The Catechizer

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