Summary: Did Christ in fact descend into hell? This sermon examines the origin of the phrase "he descended into hell" in the Apostles’ Creed, possible biblical support for the phrase, and the biblical opposition to the descent of Christ into hell.
As we continue our series in The Apostles’ Creed I would like to examine today what it means when we say that “he descended into hell.” Please listen as I recite the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From there he will 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 the life everlasting. Amen.
Today we affirmed our Christian faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. In doing so, we joined with Christians all over the world and throughout the centuries in affirming our faith in the persons and works of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In affirming our faith in Jesus Christ, we affirmed, in part, the following: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”
It is sometimes argued that Christ descended into hell after he died. In fact, this is what the Apostles’ Creed states: “He descended into hell.”
The question I want to pose and then answer today is: Did Christ in fact descend into hell? Did Christ endure further suffering in hell after his death on the cross?
I propose that we study this question by examining:
• The Origin of the Phrase—“He Descended Into Hell”
• Possible Biblical Support for “He Descended Into Hell”
• Biblical Opposition to “He Descended Into Hell”
I. The Origin of the Phrase—“He Descended Into Hell”
So, first, let’s examine the origin of the phrase—“He descended into hell.”
The first thing to note is that the phrase “he descended into hell” does not actually occur in the Bible.
A murky background lies behind much of the history of the phrase itself. Its origins, where they can be found, are far from praiseworthy.
Unlike the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian Definition, the Apostles’ Creed was not written or approved by a single Church Council at one specific time. Instead, it gradually took shape from about the second century AD until about the seventh century AD.
It is surprising to find that the phrase “he descended into hell” was not found in any of the early versions of the Apostles’ Creed. It first appeared in the Fourth Formula of Sirmium, the so-called Dated Creed of 359 AD. It was not until about 650 AD that it was commonly found in widespread use in the Apostles’ Creed.
Now, Rufinus, who wrote a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed in about 404 AD, did not think that it meant that Christ descended into hell, but understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ was “buried.” In other words, he took it to mean that Christ “descended into the grave.” (The Greek form of the Apostles’ Creed uses the word hades, which can mean just “grave,” not gehenna, which means “hell, the place of punishment”).
As one continues to survey the use of the Apostles’ Creed, it seems that when the phrase “he descended into hell” began to be more commonly used, it may have been in versions (now lost to us) that did not have the expression “and buried.” In other words, the creed used only one of the two expressions to signify Christ’s burial. But later when “he descended into hell” was used in a version of the creed that already had the phrase “and buried,” some other explanation had to be given to it. This mistaken insertion of the phrase after the words “and buried” was apparently done around 650 AD—led to all sorts of attempts to explain “he descended into hell” in some way that did not contradict Scripture.
Some have taken the phrase “he descended into hell” to mean that Christ suffered the pains of hell while on the cross. John Calvin, for example, says that “Christ’s descent into hell” refers to the fact that he not only died a bodily death but that “it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment.”
Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, asks: Why does the creed add, “He descended to hell?” The answer: