The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest and most widely used statements of Christian belief. In it, there is a line that has puzzled many: ‘He descended into hell.’ Why would Jesus, the Son of God, go to hell after his crucifixion?
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The ‘descent into hell’ in the Apostles’ Creed refers to Jesus spending time in the realm of the dead after his crucifixion and before his resurrection. It affirms Christ’s victory over death and his presence even in the afterlife.
In this comprehensive article, we will examine the meaning behind this phrase in detail. We will look at the possible biblical foundations, historical interpretations, theological implications, and more.
The Wording and Origins of the Phrase
The Actual Wording in the Creed
The key phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that refers to Jesus’ descent into hell is “He descended into hell.” This simple phrase has sparked much debate over its meaning and origins.
Possible Biblical Allusions
There are several biblical passages that may allude to Jesus’ descent into hell:
- 1 Peter 3:19 – This verse refers to Jesus “preaching to the spirits in prison.” Some believe this means Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion.
- Ephesians 4:8-10 – This passage speaks of Jesus descending into “the lower parts of the earth.” Some interpreters take this as a reference to hell.
- Acts 2:27 – This verse quotes Psalm 16:10 which says God’s Holy One (Jesus) will not see decay nor be abandoned to the grave (Sheol = hell).
However, the exact meaning of these verses is widely disputed by biblical scholars.
Early Church Views and Usage
The phrase “descended into hell” has been part of church creeds since the late 4th century AD, but early church fathers had differing views on its meaning:
- Some said Jesus preached salvation to deceased souls in hell.
- Others said he proclaimed victory over hell and Satan.
- Still others argued Jesus suffered the pains of hell on the cross.
There was no consensus, but the phrase remained part of church tradition. Even today theologians debate various interpretations of this cryptic phrase.
Theological Perspectives and Interpretations
Christ’s Victory Over Death
Many early Church Fathers viewed Christ’s descent into hell as a triumphant procession where Christ proclaimed His victory over sin and death to imprisoned spirits. According to 1 Peter 3:19, after His death, Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison.”
This passage is commonly linked to Jesus’ descent into hell. The imprisonment of these spirits and Christ’s preaching to them signified that even the realm of the dead was not outside of God’s redemptive reach.
This perspective emphasizes Christ’s sovereignty over death and His power to liberate even those detained in Sheol/Hades. As the Nicene Creed declares, “on the third day He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.”
The Harrowing of Hell displayed Jesus’ authority over the grave, foreshadowing His Resurrection victory over death.
Preaching to Imprisoned Spirits
Some interpret Jesus’ descent as a mission of preaching salvation to imprisoned spirits of Noah’s day who rejected God’s call to repentance. 1 Peter 3:19-20 states, “He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”
From this view, Christ offered His gospel message even to those in Hades who had rebelled against God.
Regardless of whether these imprisoned souls believed in Christ, His preaching demonstrated God’s persistent love toward resistant sinners. The realm of damnation was not beyond the reach of divine grace and mercy.
Binding Satan and Freeing Captives
Many Church Fathers saw the Harrowing of Hell as Christ’s victory over Satan. Christ’s descent proclaimed His supremacy over the devil in the latter’s territory. Ancient sermons depict Christ breaking the gates of Hades, binding Satan, and freeing Adam and righteous souls imprisoned there.
Colossians 2:15 pictures Christ’s triumph on the cross as disarming and triumphing over evil “powers and authorities.” For early believers, the binding of Satan also enabled the liberation of captives from his grasp. This represents Christ’s power to redeem sinners from the kingdom of darkness.
Other Metaphorical Understandings
Some modern theologians understand Christ’s descent metaphorically, not as a literal event. For example, Hans Urs von Balthasar saw it as a profoundly meaningful symbol of Holy Saturday – the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The descent represents Jesus’ radical solidarity with all people, even in extreme forsakenness and God-forsakenness.
Karl Barth interpreted it as a summation of Christ’s incarnation, not a distinct event. Just as Christ reached our depths through the Incarnation, so He fully identified with our alienation from God, even to the extreme point of death, descent to the grave, and enduring divine judgment on sin.
While interpretations differ, Christ’s descent powerfully displays His far-reaching redemptive work to save humanity and defeat sin, death, and Satan. It points to the depths of Christ’s sacrificial love and the extent of God’s saving grace.
Historical and Modern Debates
Early Church Controversies
In the early centuries of Christianity, there was considerable debate about the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell. Some argued it referred to Jesus literally descending into the realm of the dead after his crucifixion.
Others saw it as more of a metaphorical description of Christ’s victory over sin and death. Key figures like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas weighed in, but no consensus emerged.
During the Middle Ages, theologians continued to puzzle over the creed’s mention of Christ’s descent into hell. Thinkers like Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas explored questions like: Did Jesus descend into the limbo of the fathers to release Old Testament saints?
Or did he descend into the hell of the damned and preach to them? While beliefs varied, most theologians affirmed that through his death, Christ somehow overcame the powers of hell.
The Reformers of the 16th century fiercely debated the meaning of Christ’s descent. Luther insisted it referred to Jesus suffering the torments of hell on the cross. Calvin argued it meant Jesus endured the wrath and judgment of God.
Other Reformers like Zwingli considered it a symbolic expression of Christ’s victory. Despite their differences, the Reformation confessions continued to recite the line in the Apostles’ Creed.
Today, there is still no consensus among theologians about the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell. Some view it as referring to Jesus’ burial. Others see it as a metaphor for his victory over sin, death and Satan. More liberal scholars may dismiss it as outdated imagery.
Nevertheless, many Christians still find deep meaning in confessing that Jesus descended to the dead after his crucifixion.
The meaning behind Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ has been widely discussed, disputed, and contemplated through the centuries of church history. While a definite consensus has not emerged, most interpretations see it as an affirmation of Christ’s victory over death and continuing spiritual presence.
The phrase remains part of the Apostles’ Creed today as a reminder of Christ’s absolute triumph and as a source of hope for life beyond death. While hell is a place of despair and destruction, the Creed declares that even there, Christ is victor and acts as a liberator.