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Did Jesus really descend into hell?


The Apostles’ Creed question that everyone ponders

April 29, 2020

Christ in Limbo, Fresco, by Fra Angelico (ca. 1442)

Of the 12 entries in our Book of Confessions, odds are you’re most familiar with the Apostles’ Creed. Every branch of Christianity’s family tree accepts it. It’s often recited at baptisms. But of its 110 words, four have tripped up Christians for centuries: He descended into hell.

Appearing between “crucified, dead, and buried” and “the third day he rose again,” “descended into hell” wasn’t originally part of the Creed. It was sometime around A.D. 400, in the writings of Rufinus, a monk and theologian, that the first mention of Jesus’ descent appeared. In A.D. 750, the Latin church made it an official part of the Creed.

But why add this line? It all depends on whom you ask.

Let’s start by understanding the definition of the word “hell” in Hebrew (sheol) and Greek (hades). Both translate to mean “land of the dead.” So, like Rufinus, some folks believe that this clause simply means that Jesus, being fully human and fully divine, experienced a true human death. Critics of this view, though, ask why it was necessary to include it in the Creed.

Others argue that “hell” refers to Gehenna, a valley outside of Jerusalem that was originally used for child sacrifice and later used as a garbage dump, which became Hebrew “shorthand” for a place of everlasting punishment. Further complicating matters, Gehenna advocates have different views on why Jesus would have gone there:

  • To suffer the consequences of human depravity. Thomas Aquinas held this view, but critics argue that Jesus’ statements on the cross (“Today you will be with me in paradise” and “It is finished!”) contradict it.
  • To preach the gospel, thus giving hell’s inhabitants a second chance at salvation. This view is based on a particular reading of Ephesians 4:8–10 and 1 Peter 3:18–20, where the Scriptures seem to indicate that Jesus might have visited the lands of the dead to save those who were there. Critics say this view forces an interpretation originally not intended.

Other views, including John Calvin’s, assert that “hell” shouldn’t be understood literally. Instead, Jesus’ separation from God on the cross constitutes ultimate suffering.

So what do Presbyterians believe about Jesus “descending into hell”? All of the above … none of the above … some combination of the above.

While we might not necessarily agree on the meaning of this phrase, we can agree on the role it plays as part of our confessional heritage.

As Presbyterians, we take a Reformed view of the Bible and the church’s creeds. In the words of our ordination vows, “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments [are], by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to [us],” and we “receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.” That’s a lot of fancy language that means we believe that the Bible is the authority by which we understand and live out our relationship with God and each other. Scripture gets the final word. Our confessions serve as conversation partners. They come out of specific contexts, giving us snapshots of how those siblings in Christ in those times and places understood what being Christian meant. For example, the Reformer Theodore Beza didn’t agree with John Calvin, as he preferred to omit “he descended into hell.” Calvin kept it.

Creeds aren’t supposed to give us all of the answers. Rather, they help us ask better questions. They drive us back to the Bible, where, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can encounter the love of God expressed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that, regardless of our own understanding of Jesus’ descent, is our takeaway from these four words in the Apostles’ Creed. By reciting these words, we affirm that Jesus loves us so much that he was willing to make — and be — the ultimate sacrifice for us. We celebrate that there’s nowhere devoid of God’s grace and mercy. And we rejoice that death no longer has the final say.

Jodi Craiglow, Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, Illinois

Today’s Focus:  Jesus

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Nathaniel Carter, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Katie Carter, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Loving God, continue to challenge us to grow in faith, always remembering to be grateful for the foundation you provide. May we be ever open to learning and sharing in your work in our world. Amen.

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