descendit ad ínferos (He descended into Hell)

descendit ad ínferos (He descended into Hell) May 17, 2011

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 oncefor sins,the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.He was put to death in the bodybut made alive in the Spirit. In that statehe went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits–to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patientlyin 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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