The Apostles’ Creed and “Descended to Hell”

September 11, 2012

First, Amazon has what looks to be a very good book on the Apostles’ Creed that is free today for Kindle. It is called Primal Credo. Here is an interview with the author.

Second, I’d like to make a few comments about the line talking about Jesus descending into hell in the Creed. In the past I’ve argued for a metaphorical understanding of this phrase. In a sense, Jesus went to hell for us. True enough. However, I recently bumped into a different view by Lee Irons that makes much more sense.

If the metaphorical understanding is correct, it is in the wrong place in the Creed. Since Jesus cried, “It is finished” after he was crucified but obviously before he died, the metaphorical descent to hell should be before he died, not after he was buried.

So, if the metaphorical sense doesn’t reflect the intent of the Creed’s authors, what does? It turns out that our word for hell didn’t always mean hell, the place of eternal torment. Early on, it referred to the place of the dead. To quote Irons, “But originally, ‘hell’ meant the realm of the dead, the interim place where souls go after death before the resurrection.” This changes the sense of the Creed significantly. After his death but before his resurrection, Jesus went to the interim place of the dead, Sheol in the Old Testament, Hades in the New Testament. As you recall from the Rich Man and Lazarus parable, Hades is composed of two parts: a place of torment and Abraham’s Bosom or we might say, Paradise, Luke 23:13. The Latin word infernum translated “hell” in the Creed means not the place of eternal torment but hades. That Jesus went to hades is clearly expressed in Acts 2:27. “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” This is what the Creed is referring to.

What did Jesus do while he was in hades? I don’t think we know that with any certainty. I think it is best to understand that Jesus experienced exactly what we must go through. Irons writes:

Being the incarnate Son of God did not spare him one last act of humiliation. He had yet to go one step lower. The bottom of the cosmic parabola has not yet been reached. He must descend into Hades. He must go down, down to the very depths, to the farthest point symbolically from the heights of heaven. And he went there, not to suffer more for our sins, but in order to free all his own from the cords of death …

Therefore, we need not be afraid of death. When the time comes for us to cross over into that mysterious realm where the souls of the dead are, we know that we will not go there alone, nor will we face it with doom and gloom.  Jesus has been there before us, and he will see us through.

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2 Responses to “The Apostles’ Creed and “Descended to Hell””

  1. Trey Medley Says:

    In other words, it’s an emphasis on the reality of his death. As if to say “He died and was buried. He was really, very much, completely dead y’all.”


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