descendit ad ínferos (He descended into Hell)

The line in the Apostles’ Creed that Christ “descended into hell” is discussed by Sandy Grant over at the Sola Panel.  Now the fact is that Christ did not descend into hell, so Grant suggests a few options open to us if we want to keep the Creed:

1. Drop the phrase altogether. But if we drop it from the Creed, that sounds like we are getting rid of our belief in hell. An unintended outcome, but it could be misunderstood that way by the casual observer.

2. Pick an alternative (as the recent Sydney Diocese prayer book, Sunday Services), namely either:

  • (a) “On the cross, he descended into hell” (the theological interpretation), or
  • (b) “He was crucified, dead and buried, he descended to the grave/place of the dead” (historically more accurate, but clumsy and repetitive).

On this topic let me give my two cents from my forthcoming systematics volume:

The Apostle’s Creed  states that “He [Christ] descended into Hell”. This line of the creed is based on a section from 1 Peter: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. In that state he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits–to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Pet 3:18-20; cf. 4:6). The questions that emerge are: who are the “imprisoned spirits” (unbelievers, Old Testament saints, fallen angels) what did Christ preach (second chance for salvation, completion of his redemptive work, judgment), and when did he preach it (in the days of Noah, between his death and resurrection, after his resurrection).[1] This is a terribly opaque passage to try to interpret. I can understand how persons, ancient and modern, would think that Christ actually went down to hell. However, I have to reject that interpretation because Christ promised the thief on the cross that they would soon be in paradise not hell (Lk 23:43). Paradise is the intermediate state or the blessed part of Hades that Jesus entered into. When Christ died he went to neither heaven nor hell, but to the waiting place of the dead to announce his triumph. Most likely the meaning of 1 Pet 3:18-21 is that the preaching of judgment during the days of Noah is a typological prefiguration of the preaching of judgment in the days of the apostles.[2] It teaches a key biblical theme: salvation only comes in the aftermath of judgment.[3] So should we abandon the creed because it is wrong about the descent of Christ. To which I say, mē genoito (may it never be). Calvin said of the creed that “it furnishes us with a full and every way complete summary of faith, containing nothing but what has been derived from the infallible word of God”. Yet Calvin rejected the notion that Christ descended into hell, but urged people to keep this line in the Creed because “the place which it holds in a summary of our redemption is so important, that the omission of it greatly detracts from the benefits of Christ’s death”. Calvin instead takes the line to refer to the torment that Christ suffered on the cross. It is the point where Jesus experienced at close quarters “the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death” and “bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined men”. In other words, Jesus did not literally go down to hell, rather the experience of hell fell upon Jesus at the cross as part of the penalty for our sins that he suffered on the cross.[4] Calvin does not abandon this tradition, as others urge us to do,[5] but he recasts its meaning to fit the biblical materials.[6] Remember also that the Apostles’ Creed is not owned by the original authors but by the church who confesses the apostolic faith. Manuscripts and quotations indicate that the creed had revisions from when it was first written in the mid-second century all the way to about the eighth century. In fact the phrase “descended into hell” may have been a later addition, albeit, an unwise one! So recasting the Apostles’ Creed to fit the scriptures is hardly intrusive but is canonically and catholically justified.


[1] Cf. Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter (TNTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 155-61.

[2] Grudem (1 Peter, 161): writes: “This passage, once cleared of misunderstanding, should also function today as an encouragement to us to be bold in our witness (as Noah was), to be confident that, though we may be few, God will certainly save us (as he did Noah), and to remind us that just as certainly as the flood eventually came, so final judgment will certain come to our world as well, and Christ will ultimately triumph over all the evil in the universe.”

[3] Cf. James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).

[4] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.8-10.

[5] Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostle’s Creed,” JETS 34 (1991), 107-112.

[6] R. Michael Allen, Reformed Theology (London: Continuum, 2010), 154.

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  • Academiachurch

    Great article! Certainly has clarified this mysterious passage.

  • Academiachurch

    Great article! Certainly has clarified this mysterious passage.

  • Nathan

    Reformed though I am, I disagree with choosing a meaning that was not intended by those who included the line in the creed. Let’s affirm what is meant or adjust the creed to reflect the what we believe is true.

  • Nathan

    Reformed though I am, I disagree with choosing a meaning that was not intended by those who included the line in the creed. Let’s affirm what is meant or adjust the creed to reflect the what we believe is true.

  • Anonymous

    If you use an ecumenical creed, then you should not mess about with it. The whole point is to confess the faith in the same way that all other Christians who use that creed do. (Whether this clause is original is not the point. The Creed has developed but this is the form in which everyone who uses it now uses it.) So “On the cross, he descended into hell” is certainly out: no one thought of that interpretation before the 16th century and it hasn’t a chance of being the original meaning. The Latin ‘ad inferos’ meant ‘to Hades, the place of the dead.’ It says ‘ad inferos,’ the underworld (Hades), not ‘ad infernum,’ which means hell as the place of punishment after death (Gehenna). The reference is surely to Acts 2:31, not 1 Peter, and thus says no more than what Scripture actually says.

    The modern version used in the Church of England is ‘he descended to the dead.’ That seems to me an adequate translation that is not cumbersome.

  • Anonymous

    If you use an ecumenical creed, then you should not mess about with it. The whole point is to confess the faith in the same way that all other Christians who use that creed do. (Whether this clause is original is not the point. The Creed has developed but this is the form in which everyone who uses it now uses it.) So “On the cross, he descended into hell” is certainly out: no one thought of that interpretation before the 16th century and it hasn’t a chance of being the original meaning. The Latin ‘ad inferos’ meant ‘to Hades, the place of the dead.’ It says ‘ad inferos,’ the underworld (Hades), not ‘ad infernum,’ which means hell as the place of punishment after death (Gehenna). The reference is surely to Acts 2:31, not 1 Peter, and thus says no more than what Scripture actually says.

    The modern version used in the Church of England is ‘he descended to the dead.’ That seems to me an adequate translation that is not cumbersome.

  • Marc Regier

    Anyone here read Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity? He has a section devoted to discussing the theological/philosophical (yes, even exegetical) implications of Christ’s descent into Hell. Shorter thoughts in correlation to this discussion is his Spe Salvi, the second encyclical he wrote as Pope.

    I’m not a Catholic, but I give credence to the RCC’s foremost living dogmatician for critiquing what should and shouldn’t be in the creed.

  • Marc Regier

    Anyone here read Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity? He has a section devoted to discussing the theological/philosophical (yes, even exegetical) implications of Christ’s descent into Hell. Shorter thoughts in correlation to this discussion is his Spe Salvi, the second encyclical he wrote as Pope.

    I’m not a Catholic, but I give credence to the RCC’s foremost living dogmatician for critiquing what should and shouldn’t be in the creed.

  • Justinwbass

    I wrote my dissertation on this topic arguing from Revelation 1:18 that the descensus ad inferos is in the background of that passage. I also did an historical study of this doctrine and you would interested to know that this doctrine did not arise as a result of 1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:5-6, but instead from passages such as Matt 12:40; 27:52-53; Acts 2:27, 31; and Eph 4:9. Ignatius of Antioch (one of the earliest church fathers) is already arguing for the descent from passages such as these and never mentions 1 Peter 3 (Ign. Magn. 9.2). In fact, 1 Peter 3:18-22 does not get explicitly quoted until Clement of Alexandria at the beginning of the third century. That 1 Peter 3 is the passage that gave rise to the descensus doctrine is a common mistake among Reformers and I hope to publish my dissertation soon as a corrective to this among many other things in regards to this doctrine. I close with a good question to think about from St. Augustine, “Who, therefore, but an infidel will deny that Christ was in hell?” (Ep. 164).

    I am thankful that there is still so much interest in this great doctrine though.

    God bless
    Justin

  • Justinwbass

    I wrote my dissertation on this topic arguing from Revelation 1:18 that the descensus ad inferos is in the background of that passage. I also did an historical study of this doctrine and you would interested to know that this doctrine did not arise as a result of 1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:5-6, but instead from passages such as Matt 12:40; 27:52-53; Acts 2:27, 31; and Eph 4:9. Ignatius of Antioch (one of the earliest church fathers) is already arguing for the descent from passages such as these and never mentions 1 Peter 3 (Ign. Magn. 9.2). In fact, 1 Peter 3:18-22 does not get explicitly quoted until Clement of Alexandria at the beginning of the third century. That 1 Peter 3 is the passage that gave rise to the descensus doctrine is a common mistake among Reformers and I hope to publish my dissertation soon as a corrective to this among many other things in regards to this doctrine. I close with a good question to think about from St. Augustine, “Who, therefore, but an infidel will deny that Christ was in hell?” (Ep. 164).

    I am thankful that there is still so much interest in this great doctrine though.

    God bless
    Justin

  • Marc Regier

    Justin! I would LOVE to read your dissertation. The points you make here are much akin to some of the (manifestly unformed) thoughts that I’ve been wrestling with.

    What I appreciate most about Ignatius’ work is his refusal to see the OT as anything other than a testimony to Jesus Christ, something our pious modern consciences can hardly handle (no doubt to the glory of God…or not!!!!)

    In the Psalter we have all the basic materials for apprehending the doctrine of Christ’s descent into Sheol (or Abbadon, the two are used in parallel in Ps.88:11).

    “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me….” (88:6)

    In light of the NT’s liberal use of the psalms in its proclamation of the “sufferings” of Christ (most especially by Luke), there can be no controversy in a careful pursuit of genuine christological DISCOVERIES in the psalms. The procedure we take in this respect signifies very clearly whether we are people of faith or people of unbelief.

  • Marc Regier

    Justin! I would LOVE to read your dissertation. The points you make here are much akin to some of the (manifestly unformed) thoughts that I’ve been wrestling with.

    What I appreciate most about Ignatius’ work is his refusal to see the OT as anything other than a testimony to Jesus Christ, something our pious modern consciences can hardly handle (no doubt to the glory of God…or not!!!!)

    In the Psalter we have all the basic materials for apprehending the doctrine of Christ’s descent into Sheol (or Abbadon, the two are used in parallel in Ps.88:11).

    “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me….” (88:6)

    In light of the NT’s liberal use of the psalms in its proclamation of the “sufferings” of Christ (most especially by Luke), there can be no controversy in a careful pursuit of genuine christological DISCOVERIES in the psalms. The procedure we take in this respect signifies very clearly whether we are people of faith or people of unbelief.

  • Michael Bird

    Justin, what are the details of your Ph.D thesis.

  • Michael Bird

    Justin, what are the details of your Ph.D thesis.

  • Justinwbass

    Hey Michael, the thesis of my dissertation is that the descensus is in the background to Revelation 1:18 where Christ says that he was dead and is now alive and holds the keys of (previously belonging to) Death and Hades. When and where did this transfer of keys occur? I argue that just like in Rev 6:8 and 20:14, Death and Hades are presented as hostile, personified beings who Christ is pictured as doing battle with in the underworld (between his death and resurrection) to wrest the keys (authority) from them (for what the battle may have been like see Rev 12:7-9). I survey Death and Hades through the background literature where they are frequently personified and paired together, keys in the ancient world, the various compartments of the underworld, and the other key NT texts that give more detail to the descensus.

    I also interact with Grudem’s recent article “He did not descend into Hell.” Grudem unfortunately is persuaded that Christ did not descend into hell as a result of false presuppositions. Namely two. First, Grudem thinks that Christ did not descend into Hell because redemption was finished at the cross (John 19:30) and should not have had to suffer more afterwards. The false teaching that Christ descended to Gehenna to suffer is first found in the 14th century! The consistent testimony of the first 1300 years or so of Church history (beginning with Ignatius) is that the descent was the beginning of Christ’s triumph/exaltation rather than the completion of his suffering. Second, Grudem argues against a second chance after death for salvation that Christ supposedly offered. Once again the vast majority of the Catholic church completely rejected this teaching as heresy (see Augustine Haer. 79) and was really only championed by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Most taught that Christ released from the underworld only those who had believed in the true God while on earth.

    Grudem’s best argument is that Christ told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in Paradise on Good Friday (Luke 23:43), but I demonstrate why this actually proves the descent in my paper.

    Thanks again for the article.

    God bless
    Justin

  • Justinwbass

    Hey Michael, the thesis of my dissertation is that the descensus is in the background to Revelation 1:18 where Christ says that he was dead and is now alive and holds the keys of (previously belonging to) Death and Hades. When and where did this transfer of keys occur? I argue that just like in Rev 6:8 and 20:14, Death and Hades are presented as hostile, personified beings who Christ is pictured as doing battle with in the underworld (between his death and resurrection) to wrest the keys (authority) from them (for what the battle may have been like see Rev 12:7-9). I survey Death and Hades through the background literature where they are frequently personified and paired together, keys in the ancient world, the various compartments of the underworld, and the other key NT texts that give more detail to the descensus.

    I also interact with Grudem’s recent article “He did not descend into Hell.” Grudem unfortunately is persuaded that Christ did not descend into hell as a result of false presuppositions. Namely two. First, Grudem thinks that Christ did not descend into Hell because redemption was finished at the cross (John 19:30) and should not have had to suffer more afterwards. The false teaching that Christ descended to Gehenna to suffer is first found in the 14th century! The consistent testimony of the first 1300 years or so of Church history (beginning with Ignatius) is that the descent was the beginning of Christ’s triumph/exaltation rather than the completion of his suffering. Second, Grudem argues against a second chance after death for salvation that Christ supposedly offered. Once again the vast majority of the Catholic church completely rejected this teaching as heresy (see Augustine Haer. 79) and was really only championed by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Most taught that Christ released from the underworld only those who had believed in the true God while on earth.

    Grudem’s best argument is that Christ told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in Paradise on Good Friday (Luke 23:43), but I demonstrate why this actually proves the descent in my paper.

    Thanks again for the article.

    God bless
    Justin

  • michaelm

    Perhaps we should ask , ;Where was JONAH during the three days which is a model of Christ;s 3 days ?.
    Also , as full stops and commas are not part of the inspired scriptures , and bearing in mind the overall teaching of scripture ? could it not equally be , I say unto you today , You shall be with Me in Paradise . And where and when is that ?. When Christ returns and is King in His kindom on earth . Where He will sit with the old covenant Jewish saints and those of the New and with the apostles too . ? :) (scripture references not supplied )


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