I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended to hell, on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, thence 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.
-The Apostles’ Creed
What is the Apostles’ Creed and why should we care?
The Apostles’ Creed was originally developed as a fundamental statement of faith by the early church in regards to the basics of orthodox belief.1 It initially functioned as a baptismal formula and is therefore somewhat parallel in purpose to the “Statement of Basic Beliefs” which we use here at The Village Church for baptism and membership. Similar to a universal commentary on the essence of the Christian faith, the creed gives modern believers an early glimpse into how our spiritual forefathers interpreted the Scriptures and what they viewed as being of utmost importance for an orthodox confession.
Many liturgical traditions faithfully recite the creed as part of their regular worship services and very few even less-liturgical local churches would have any concerns whatsoever in professing the vast majority of the clauses included in the creed. A clear biblical case can certainly be made for the Fatherhood of God, His creation of heaven and earth, the Sonship of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection from the dead, the coming judgment, and many of the other phrases.
Unlike these more clear expressions, the statement “He descended to hell” causes a great many today to pause as they reflect upon the creed. Did Jesus Christ actually descend to hell?2 What does that even mean? Is it faithful to the biblical text?
Authenticity, originality and context
Many scholars believe that the phrase in question was actually not authentic to the original text and was only added later in a commentary on Christ’s burial. This suspicion as to originality and controversy over meaning has therefore led the editors of many versions to annotate or omit the clause altogether. If the clause actually functioned as a commentary on burial, then “the intention of thealteration of the creed was not to add a new doctrine, but to explain an old one.”3
Modern readers of the creed unfortunately possess a rather monolithic interpretation of the word “hell.” We immediately think of the eternal place of torment. We picture Satan frolicking forth with a pitchfork as flames leap about suffering souls. While taking some extreme liberties in its depiction of Satan, this reality of eternal suffering is certainly faithful to relevant portions of the Biblical text (Matthew 25, Mark 9, Revelation 14 and 20). At the same time, we must understand that there were much broader ranges in the concept of afterlife in Hebrew and Greek thought.
Both Jewish and Greek worldviews expressed a vague concept of what is to be expected after experiencing death. In Hebrew, the dead go to Sheol. In Greek, the dead go to Hades. These places were unlike our modern use of the term “hell” in that they were not necessarily places of judgment, but rather functioned almost as personifications or synonyms for death itself. To go to Sheol was to die. To die was to go to Sheol.
Understanding the proper context of Hebrew and Greek thought on death would certainly illuminate for us what is possibly meant by the phrase. Therefore, if someone were to ask if Christ descended to hell, we must first clarify what is meant by hell. If it is merely meant that He truly died, then we should have no problem with the concept being expressed. Unfortunately, the context of the creed does not clarify for us what the original authors or editors meant by the clause so we must move beyond the creed and into the larger realm of the apostolic Scriptures which served as the basis for the Apostles’ Creed.
Looking at the Scriptures
Unlike most of the other phrases in the statement, the “descent clause” does not use explicit language from the Scriptures. In other words, there is no Scripture that says, “Jesus descended to hell.” Rather, two of the most often cited texts used to support the phrase are:4
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 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.
- 1 Peter 4:4-6 They are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.5
Here is what the ESV Study Bible has to say about the 1 Peter 3 passage:
1 Pet. 3:19 spirits in prison. There is much debate about the identity of these spirits. The Greek term pneuma (“spirit”), in either singular or plural, can mean either human spirits or angels, depending on the context (cf. Num. 16:22; 27:16; Acts 7:59; Heb. 12:23; etc.). Among the three most common interpretations, the first two fit best with the rest of Scripture and with historic orthodox Christian doctrine. These are:
- The first interpretation understands “spirits” (Gk. pneumasin, plural) as referring to the unsaved (human spirits) of Noah’s day. Christ, “in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18), proclaimed the gospel “in the days of Noah” (v. 20) through Noah. The unbelievers who heard Christ’s preaching “did not obey . . . in the days of Noah” (v. 20) and are now suffering judgment (they are “spirits in prison,” v. 19). Several reasons support this view: (a) Peter calls Noah a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5), where “herald” represents Greek kryx, “preacher,” which corresponds to the noun kryss, “proclaim,” in 1 Pet. 3:19. (b) Peter says the “Spirit of Christ” was speaking through the OT prophets (1:11); thus Christ could have been speaking through Noah as an OT prophet. (c) The context indicates that Christ was preaching through Noah, who was in a persecuted minority, and God saved Noah, which is similar to the situation in Peter’s time: Christ is now preaching the gospel through Peter and his readers (v. 15) to a persecuted minority, and God will save them.
- In the second interpretation, the spirits are the fallen angels who were cast into hell to await the final judgment. Reasons supporting this view include: (a) Some interpreters say that the “sons of God” in Gen. 6:2–4 are angels (see note on Gen. 6:1–2) who sinned by cohabiting with human women “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (1 Pet. 3:20). (b) Almost without exception in the NT, “spirits” (plural) refers to supernatural beings rather than people (e.g., Matt. 8:16; 10:1; Mark 1:27; 5:13; 6:7; Luke 4:36; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2; 10:20; 11:26; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 19:12, 13; 1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 16:13–14; cf. Heb. 1:7). (c) The word “prison” is not used elsewhere in Scripture as a place of punishment after death for human beings, while it is used for Satan (Rev. 20:7) and other fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). In this case the message that Christ proclaimed is almost certainly one of triumph, after having been “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18).
- In a third view, some have advocated the idea that Christ offered a second chance of salvation to those in hell. This interpretation, however, is in direct contradiction with other Scripture (cf. Luke 16:26; Heb. 9:27) and with the rest of 1 Peter and therefore must be rejected on biblical and theological grounds, leaving either of the first two views as the most likely interpretation.
I believe it is essential to begin by affirming what the ESV Study Bible has noted about the third option: it simply is not an evangelical option. There is no evidence within the Scriptures that anyone is given a second chance after death. IF we affirm the language of Christ descending into hell, we must do so in a way that does not convey a second opportunity for repentance and faith. If Christ descended into hell, He most certainly did not do so in order to offer a second chance at salvation. If Christ descended into hell, He did not do so because His death itself was insufficient or His suffering incomplete.
Having rejected the third view on the basis of the testimony of the entirety of Scripture, the starting distinction between views one and two is the interpretation of the term “spirits.” If “spirits” refers to humans, then it would commend the first view, but if “spirits” refers to angelic beings, then the second view is to be preferred.
Looking first at view one, I would commend John Piper’s thoughts. His interpretation of 1 Peter is that recipients of the preaching were alive at the time of the proclamation, but had since died. If this view is correct, then this text would not support the idea of Christ’s descent into hell. I encourage interested readers to see Piper’s response as I will not further develop his position here.
The second view can be initially confusing and thus we would do well to consider it carefully. This is the one for which my seminary professor on the “General Epistles” argued. It interprets the “spirits in prison” of 1 Peter 3:19 as a reference to the fallen angels “kept in judgment” in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. The idea behind this interpretation is that Christ went to a particular sphere or area of hell6 and preached victory over those angels who sinned in Genesis 6.
Why mention the events of Genesis 6 in particular? First, because the context of 1 Peter 3 speaks of the days of Noah and the sixth chapter of Genesis is the one in which the narrative on Noah begins. Second, a common interpretation of the first few verses of Genesis 6 is that demons attempted to seduce humans in order to pollute the human race. If humanity was no longer fully human (because of the mingling of humanity with demonic seed), then a fully human savior could never be born. Perhaps the demons were shrewdly attempting to nullify the hope of redemption as promised in the proto-evangel (Genesis 3:15). Therefore, Jesus’ descent into hell was a proclamation of His victory over those demons who had attempted to thwart His coming. That makes sense, but certainly is not explicit in the text.
While I do find the simplicity of the first view appealing, I am more compelled toward the second view. Regardless, this would certainly not be an interpretation concerning which I would choose to be terribly dogmatic. I am much more passionate about protecting against view three than I am in attempting to exegetically defend views one or two. I can easily identify with Luther’s words on the 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.”7
Did Jesus descend to hell? He surely descended into the metaphorical “heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). He certainly triumphed over the powers of darkness and proclaimed victory over them (Colossians 2:14-15). I also trust that He was with the thief that very day in paradise (Luke 23:43), that there is no evidence for a second chance at salvation (Luke 16:26; Hebrews 9:27), and that His sacrifice was absolutely sufficient (John 19:30; Hebrews 10:12-14). In light of all of these elements, I cannot merely confess that “He descended into hell” without a great deal of clarification. The clause is simply too ambiguous and controversial for me to comfortably declare without a great deal of explanation.
Also of interest: John Calvin’s thoughts on the inclusion of the phrase.
1 Precise dating of the creed is debated.
2 It is important to note at the outset that we are talking about the non-corporeal (spiritual) aspect of Christ. His body did not move from the time of His burial until His resurrection. If one says that Christ descended into hell, they should mean that He did so spiritually.
3 Cited by W. G. T Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889; repr. Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1979) 2B.604 (his emphasis).
4 Ephesians 4:9 is also sometimes used, though the text itself is speaking not about a descent from earth to hell after death, but rather His descent from heaven to earth in the incarnation. Matthew 12:40 could also be thrown into the mix in line with the aforementioned thoughts on the concepts of Sheol and Hades.
5 See the referenced Piper article below for specific commentary on the passage from chapter 4. We will be limiting our discussion to chapter 3 in this particular post.
6 By the way, most people are uncomfortable or just uninformed regarding the idea of distinct areas in hell. They think it sounds like Dante’s purgatory. Without accepting Dante’s picture, it is important to note that the Bible does use the terms Hades and Gehenna in ways which might lead us to conclude that there is some validity to distinct areas or spheres of hell. For example, Hades is called hell, and yet it is specifically tossed into the lake of fire which is also thought of as hell (Revelation 20:14). If Hades is hell and yet is tossed into hell then there could be some sort of distinct spheres referenced. Once again, this too can be confusing so I would not want to be terribly dogmatic, but it does bear mentioning. It is possible that demons are kept in one area and unbelieving humans in another, both awaiting judgment when both spheres are thrown into the lake of fire (hell) at the end.
7 Jobes, K. H. (2005). 1 Peter. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (236). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.