Many believers would at least vaguely recognise this phrase. It of course comes from the Apostle’s Creed. But it has been the subject of much debate, and differing interpretations of it have been forthcoming over the centuries. Many believe it is a central aspect of Christian belief, while some believe it perhaps should have been left out altogether.
Some even argue that it is a heretical phrase, and condemn the whole Creed as a result. So what are we to make of this phrase? Is it a helpful aspect of Christian belief or is it something to be avoided? As will be seen, translation considerations play a very important role here in answering such questions.
Let me say a few brief things to begin with, and then seek to expand on this somewhat.
One. The early church creeds, including the Apostles’ Creed, are not inspired of course, so we can agree to disagree on aspects of them.
Two. That particular four-word phrase has been the subject of various debates over the centuries. One is not necessarily a heretic for having differing thoughts on it.
Three. The Bible does in fact have numerous passages which bear directly on this concept, so it most certainly does have some biblical warrant.
Four. As always, how we interpret these particular passages is of course the real issue, and that is where disagreements can and do arise.
As with much of early Christianity, there is plenty of complexity and mystery as to how exactly the Apostle’s Creed developed and came to its final form. That history cannot here be traced, but see the bibliography below for works offering detail on all this.
Suffice it to say that it certainly was in existence early on, certainly by the second century, but its final form may have only taken shape with Charlemagne by 813. As to the phrase in question, it seems that some of the earliest formulations did not contain it.
The Creed may be the oldest of the church creeds, and it seeks to encapsulate apostolic teaching. And as Kelly says, “The belief that Christ spent the interval between His expiry on the cross and His resurrection in the underworld was a commonplace of Christian teaching from the earliest times.”
It has been accepted by most churches, including most Protestant ones. As Gonzalez puts it, “most of them – Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed – include the statement … while some, particularly those of the Wesleyan tradition, do not.”
The Eastern Orthodox Church was somewhat suspicious of it, at least early on, and put a strong emphasis on Christ’s victory over death. Except for the Anabaptists, most of the Reformers also accepted it. The Catholic church has also considered it to be an important early creed.
But see below for more ways in which various churches have sought to understand the phrase. And it should be pointed out that this phrase is also found in another important creed, the Athanasian Creed.
Sometimes critics will claim that there is no biblical warrant for the phrase. The truth is there are a number of texts which certainly do have a bearing on this – either directly or indirectly. The relevant passages are primarily these, but others could be referred to as well:
Psalm 16:10 because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. (Quoted in Acts 2:27.)
Matthew 12:40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Matthew 27:52-53 The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
John 5:25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.
Romans 10:6-7 But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). (From Deuteronomy 30:13.)
Ephesians 4:8-10 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
Philippians 2:9-11 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
1 Peter 3:18–22 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
1 Peter 4:6 For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
It is not my intent here to comment on all these passages. That would require many more articles to do them proper justice. And helpful commentaries will spend a fair amount of time on some of these more puzzling texts, such as the 1 Peter passages.
As but one example of some of the very real complexities found here, let me quote from the first commentary on 1 Peter I happened to pull from my shelves. Karen Jobes says this about the 1 Peter 3:18–22 passage:
This passage in 1 Peter is the one most debated and written about; from the earliest days of the church, it has been understood in very different ways. Even the usually dogmatic Martin Luther commented as he struggled with this passage, “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant”. Even among today’s interpreters this passage has the reputation for being perhaps the most difficult in the NT.
Yes exactly, which is why a bit of humility and grace is needed before we hurl anathemas at one another, either over this text, or the phrase in the Creed. Yet sadly I have seen Christians do just that. The famous plea, attributed to Augustine, certainly comes into play here: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Part of our problem in getting a grip on this phrase is the fact that we are having to work through at least four different languages: we have the biblical Hebrew and Greek to deal with, the Latin of the Creed, and then of course English, and the way it deals with words and phrases from the other three languages.
And as is often pointed out by the experts, the English translation of the word in the phrase is better “hades” than “hell”. See for example how different Bible translations translate Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27, which I mentioned above. Simply compare these two versions of Acts 2:27:
-“Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (KJV)
-“because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.” (NIV)
So linguistic and translation considerations are very important here and must be examined closely. A very helpful book on the Creed by theologian J. I. Packer is just one place to look to for starters. Here is a snippet from it:
The English is misleading, for “hell” has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed. Originally, “hell” meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol. That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, “thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades” (so RSV: AV has “hell”), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27–31). But since the seventeenth century, “hell” has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name is Gehenna. What the Creed means, however, is that Jesus entered, not Gehenna, but Hades—that is, that He really died, and that it was from a genuine death, not a simulated one, that He rose.
As Barclay puts it, “This sentence of the creed therefore had originally nothing to do with hell. It simply meant that Jesus went to the place of the dead. . . . The original intention of this phrase in the creed was to affirm that Jesus was really and truly dead.”
Michael Bird takes it a tad further: “A better English rendering of the Creed would be something like he ‘descended to the place of the dead’ rather than just ‘to the dead’.” Thus the version many of us now have or are used to, referring to “hell,” is not so helpful, and a different translation is required to make better sense of it, and what the original authors intended.
The issue still remains as to how we are to understand this phrase. The Eastern fathers such as Clement, Origen, Cyril and John of Damascus said that Christ in hell preached the gospel to evangelise the unbelieving dead. In the West, church fathers such as Augustine and Tertullian spoke of Christ descending to the lower regions to unite faithful patriarchs and prophets to himself.
Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) for example could speak about Christ going to the “underworld” and “down to the regions beneath the earth” as part of this mission. Catholics take a similar sort of view, while Luther said this descent completed Christ’s triumph over Satan. Calvin saw it more as a symbolic image of the penal sufferings of Christ on the cross.
Most Protestants and evangelicals today tend to follow Calvin and take it to mean a figurative picture of the work of Christ at Calvary. As Sproul puts it, “Calvin and others define that descent as the spiritual reality of Jesus’ soul while He hung rejected and condemned by His Father on the cross. To be forsaken, to be cut off by God, brings with it the full torment of Hell.”
This however is of course a very simplified and brief overview of a much more nuanced discussion. So much more can be and has been said about all this. More articles will be needed to take this further.
The creeds are not divinely inspired of course and that particular phrase has long been the subject of debate over the centuries. How exactly we are to understand it is still a matter of discussion, but as Trueman reminds us, we need to seek to get as close to the original intent of the authors as we can:
“As is so often the case in the history of theology, the creed’s offense at this point is based more on a surface reading of the words from a later context than upon their original intent.”
Those familiar with historical theology and the original biblical languages realise that this is indeed a debatable phrase, with good Christians taking various positions on it. And the relatively sparse language in the Bible about what exactly happens after death but before the resurrection also means there can be some ambiguity here, as well as with the various terms used.
Thus a bit of theological humility is always warranted in such circumstances. But because it is not part of the biblical canon, those who dislike it, or parts of it, are welcome to just ignore it if they must. It is not binding on anyone. But like many of the early creeds, it offers a helpful summary and exposition of basic Christianity, or what Lewis would call “mere Christianity”.
For further reading:
There is plenty that has been written on this important creed. Here are some helpful and rather recent volumes – mostly by evangelical Protestants – to take you further in exploring it:
William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed. Westminster John Knox, 1967, 2005.
Michael Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed. Zondervan, 2016.
Stuart Briscoe, The Apostles’ Creed. Shaw Books, 2000.
Michael Horton, We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostles’ Creed. Word, 1998.
Daniel Hyde, In Defense of the Descent. Reformation Heritage, 2010.
Justo Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today. WJK, 2007.
Alister McGrath, I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed. IVP, 1991, 1997.
J. I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed. Crossway, 2008.
R. C. Sproul, What We Believe: Understanding and Confessing the Apostles’ Creed. Baker, 1973, 2015.
Let me mention two quick things about the above volumes. While McGrath mentions the phrase, he nowhere discusses it in his book! And the Hyde volume, as the title suggests, is devoted entirely to explaining – and defending – the phrase.
Concerning the early creeds in general, the reader is advised to consult some of the now classic volumes on the topic, such as:
J. N. D., Kelly, Early Christian Creeds. Longmans, 1950.
John Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed. John Knox Press, 1963, 1982.
Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols., 6th ed. 1876, 1998.
J. Stevenson and W. H. C. Frend, Creeds, Councils and Controversies. SPCK, 1966, 1989.
Those four books offer us a very good overview of the lengthy development and evolution of the creeds, including the Apostles’ Creed, and show us how it got to its final form. See also these more general yet quite helpful works:
Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ. Mentor, 1984.
Justin Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils. Zondervan, 2014.
Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative. Crossway, 2012.
In addition, one needs to consult the various commentaries on the relevant passages mentioned above to get much more insight – textually, linguistically, theologically, historically, and so on.