One of the great privileges of church history is the opportunity to stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before us in the faith. That means, we not only enjoy good biographies and testimonies of faithful brothers and sisters in the faith, but we likewise enjoy creeds and confessions as well. They can serve as a stake in the ground that announces our positions upon either essential truth (the gospel) or doctrinal distinctives (such as the 1689 London Baptist Confession).
If anyone rejects the value of creeds and confessions by holding to the idea of “No creed but Christ” they should be reminded of the reality that their position is actually a creed too. It’s not a good one, but it’s nevertheless a creedal statement. Therefore, creeds and confessions can be very helpful in identifying positions and providing guardrails that prevent people from making serious doctrinal errors along the journey of faith.
One of the most historic creeds of church history is the Apostles’ Creed. It appears in part soon after the apostolic period and in more full form later through church history. Contained in this historic doctrinal statement are wonderful truths that Christians have been embracing and reciting for centuries. In fact, it’s believed that the Apostles’ Creed was used as a means of secretly identifying Christians as the faithful would recite the creed to prove they were friend as opposed to foe.
If you study the roots of historic confessions such as the Augsburg Confession, the Helvetic Confession, the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession (and Catechism), the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession, and the Canons of Dort you will discover connections to the Apostles’ Creed.
Within the historic creed that has been embraced and recited by the holy catholic church (not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church) there is one line that continues to be debated and needs further explanation. It raises a serious question. Did Jesus go to hell?
The Heretical Position
The Apostles’ Creed clearly says that Jesus “descended into hell.” So, what exactly does that mean? For centuries people have been talking about this line and debating this teaching. In some cases, we find false teachers who use this to undergird their heretical beliefs that Jesus went to hell after his death and suffered for the sins of the world.
Joyce Meyer teaches that Jesus suffered for our sins in hell. She states the following:
He became our sacrifice and died on the cross. He did not stay dead. He was in the grave three days. During that time he entered hell, where you and I deserve to go (legally) because of our sin. He paid the price there.1 Joyce Meyer, The Most Important Decision You’ll Ever Make, (second printing, 1993), 35.
This is a popular position among the Health, Wealth, and Prosperity circles. Joel Osteen has made similar statements. For instance, in one sermon Osteen stated:
The Bible indicates that for three days, Jesus went into the very depths of hell. Right into the enemy’s own territory. And He did battle with Satan face to face. Can you imagine what a show down that was? It was good vs. evil. Right vs. wrong. Holiness vs. filth. Here the two most powerful forces in the universe have come together to do battle for the first time in history. But thank God. The Bible says Satan was no match for our Champion. This was no contest. Jesus crushed Satan’s head with His foot. He bruised his head. And He once and for all, forever defeated and dethroned and demoralized our enemy.2Joel Osteen, Easter service message at Lakewood Church, Sermon #CS_002 – 4-23-00, April 23, 2000, transcript formerly online at http://www.lakewood.cc/sermons/cs_002.htm, transcript archived online … Continue reading
This is heretical teaching of the highest order. Jesus did not need to face off with Satan. There was no match between good and evil. God is sovereign and his sovereignty has never been a debatable subject, which Satan knows well. The work of Jesus on the cross was sufficient in order to provide for the expiation, propitiation, redemption, and reconciliation of guilty sinners before a holy and righteous God. There was no need for Jesus to suffer beyond the cross in the flames of hell.
The Debated Text
What does the historic line that suggests Jesus “descended into hell” mean? There is debate on the authenticity of the line itself—sometimes referenced by scholars as the descendit. Some scholars argue that it was a later addition to the Apostles’ Creed that didn’t appear in the original. While we don’t have the original, we do have historic accounts of the Creed on record, but due to the verbal transmission and memorization of the text, at times we only see part of the Creed appearing in historic documents. Rufinus explains, “The Creed is not written on paper or parchment, but is retained in the hearts of the faithful.”3Rufinus, Commentary 2 (NPNF2 3:543).
Although the debated text of the descendit may not appear in full as early as other parts of the Creed, we do find the text in the works of many historic figures of church history including Rufinus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Polycarp, Ignatius, Hermas, Justin, Melito of Sardis, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Socrates, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, Eusebius, John Chrysostom, Evodius, and Augustine. Therefore, the text is present throughout church history and deserves attention. It would do us well to consider its meaning.
Did Jesus Descend Into the Grave?
Many theologians believe that the debated line in the Apostles’ Creed indicates that Jesus descended into the grave. As we study the Scriptures, we find the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol used in conjunction with the grave. For instance, in Acts when Peter is preaching his famous sermon at Pentecost, he quotes from the Psalms and makes the following statement about Jesus:
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.4Acts 2:27
In that scene, Peter quotes from Psalm 16 where the Psalmist references Sheol. It seems that the context is clear. Jesus would not be left in Sheol (the grave) where his flesh would be corrupted and experience decay. That’s a reference to the speedy resurrection that happened on the third day. Simon Kistemaker observes:
Many versions transliterate the Greek term Hades. This is the term for the Hebrew Sheol, which signifies “pit” or “grave.” In his sermon, Peter employs the word Hades not in the sense of “abode of the dead,” but as the grave.5 Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 17, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 96.
Unfortunately, Augustine was incorrect in his interpretation of this passage to the point of labeling people who rejected the idea that Jesus descended into hell as infidels. He warns against rejecting that Jesus went to hell by writing, “who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell?”6“It is established beyond all question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, ‘descended into hell,’” the support for which he finds in the psalmist’s prophecy … Continue reading
Did Jesus Preach to the Spirits in Hell?
Perhaps the most difficult text that many people go to for their basis of Jesus descending into hell is 1 Peter 3:18-20. The text reads:
For 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.
In verse 19, Jesus is said to have gone and proclaimed to the spirits in prison. What exactly does this mean? This paragraph is difficult to work through on many levels, not just because of the doctrinal issues surrounding the meaning of Jesus “going to hell to preach” but likewise the doctrine of baptism which is also connected to this paragraph by context. D. Edmond Hiebert observes the following about verse 19, “Each of the nine words in the original has been differently understood.”7D. Edmond Hiebert, First Peter, p. 226. Simon Kistemaker observes:
Does the statement he went and preached mean that Jesus descended into hell? No, it does not, because evidence for this assumption is lacking. Scripture nowhere teaches that Christ after his resurrection and prior to his ascension descended into hell.8Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude, vol. 16, 142.
Granted it’s a difficult text to work through, however I conclude that Peter is referencing the suffering and triumphant work of Christ in his gospel and that he likewise preached through Noah, during the days of the prophet’s ministry, to the souls who rejected, perished, and are presently under the wrath of God as prisoners. I do not see this as a proof text that Jesus went to hell.
Consider the reality that we have four Gospels, and no Gospel writer said anything about Jesus going to hell. There’s not one line or text that makes this conclusion. We must remember that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. When we come across difficult passages, before running to Calvin, Luther, Augustine, or any other historic figure from church history, we must turn to holy Scripture. We must ask what the whole of Scripture says! In this case, it’s utterly silent.
What Does “He Descended Into Hell” Mean?
On the basis of textual authority, I reject the idea that Jesus died and went to hell to suffer. That’s heresy of the highest order. I likewise reject the orthodox position that Jesus went to hell on a victory tour to announce and proclaim his victory over the devil. I do so on the basis of the following:
- There is no longer hope for doomed sinners to be saved. There is no such thing as post-mortem salvation.
- There is no purpose in preaching to damned spirits (demons). The OT Scriptures are sufficient to declare the woe and wrath of God as well as the victory of the Messiah.
- The text in 1 Peter 3 would seem to indicate that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and then somehow descended into hell. It’s a strange doctrine that lacks biblical support from the whole of Scripture.
- Textual Evidence.
The textual evidence of what happened immediately after Jesus’ death on the cross seems to point in a different direction than hell. For instance, as John the Apostle records for us the moments of Jesus’ death on the cross in John 19:30, we find these words, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Nothing more was necessary for Jesus to do in order to satisfy holy justice on behalf of his people. Jesus’ work was finished.
Furthermore, in Luke 23:43, we find Jesus’ interaction with the criminal on the cross next to him. After being rebuked by one criminal, the other defended the righteousness of Christ and prayed for Jesus to remember him. Jesus responded with these words, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”9Luke 23:43 Some have sought to argue that paradise is somewhere other than heaven, but a survey of the Scriptures indicates that paradise is a reference to heaven. On the basis of 2 Corinthians 12:1-5, Revelation 2:7, and Revelation 22—it seems clear that paradise and heaven are used interchangeably in the New Testament.
William Perkins, in his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed observes the following:
If Christ did go into the place of the damned, then either in soul or in body or in Godhead. But His Godhead could not descend, because it is everywhere, and His body was in the grave. And as for His soul it went not to hell, but presently after His death it went to Paradise, that is, the third heaven, a place of joy and happiness.10William Perkins, Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed
How Did Jesus Experience Hell?
The best explanation of this line in the Apostles’ Creed is to understand it as a metaphorical statement that points to Jesus’ suffering under God’s wrath on the cross. Crucifixion was invented by the Persians, practiced by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and the Egyptians. However, it was the Romans who perfected the art of torture. The Romans had crucified over 30,000 criminals by time Jesus was led to his cross. The Romans referred to the cross as “the infamous stake.” Consider the following verses and what they communicate about Jesus’ death on the cross.
Matthew 27:46 – And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Philippians 2:5–11 – Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Hebrews 13:11–14 – For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
After careful preparation, the sacrifices were used with great precision. Every last part of the animal was used with great specificity in conjunction with the commands of Leviticus 4. The parts of the body that were considered waste and not used were taken outside the camp to a specified place where they were burned. This continued even beyond the Tabernacle era to the Temple period as well.
This is why Calvin interpreted this line in the Apostles’ Creed as a reference to Jesus’ suffering on the cross—outside of the camp in the place of rejection. Calvin concludes:
The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.11John Calvin, Institutes, 516.
I believe the best way to interpret the debated text of the Apostles’ Creed is to put emphasis upon Jesus’ substitutionary and satisfactory sacrifice as the Lamb of God (John 2:29). When Jesus was crucified, it was a literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Servant. In Isaiah 53:10, he predicted that the LORD would crush Jesus. According to Guy M. Richard, professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary:
According to Hebrews 13:11–12, Jesus did descend into hell. He did so on the cross as He bore an eternity of hell for all the sins of all His people who would ever live. He was wholly consumed. That means that there is no hell left for those who are in Christ. He descended into hell so that we would never have to. He stood in our place and took the judgment and wrath of God poured out against our sins. And He rose again from the dead on the third day to confirm that His sacrifice was in fact accepted by the God of the universe. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!12https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/did-jesus-descend-into-hell/
What we must remember, as we think through this debated text in the Apostles’ Creed, is that while creeds and confessions are helpful tools, they are not to be raised to the level of Scripture. We have freedom when using the Apostles’ Creed and a few options for the local church and the individual Christian include the following:
- Revise the language.
- Delete it completely.
- Refuse to recite the debated text if used in the life of the church if it violates your conscience.
I personally have no problem using the Apostles’ Creed and including the debated text when reciting it—provided that we understand it properly. It’s a theological tool that points to the hope we have in Christ and like songs, prayers, and sermons that are preached in the life of the church—the reciting of theological creeds and confessions can serve a purpose to strengthen our faith in the hope of the gospel. Join the band of Christians from centuries before us by reciting the historical Christian doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed.
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For additional reading on the subject, I would recommend:
DESCENDIT: DELETE OR DECLARE? A DEFENSE AGAINST THE NEO-DELETIONISTS – Jeffery L. Hamm
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The Apostles’ Creed
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, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there 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 life everlasting.
|1||Joyce Meyer, The Most Important Decision You’ll Ever Make, (second printing, 1993), 35.|
|2||Joel Osteen, Easter service message at Lakewood Church, Sermon #CS_002 – 4-23-00, April 23, 2000, transcript formerly online at http://www.lakewood.cc/sermons/cs_002.htm, transcript archived online at http://web.archive.org/web/20040408215244/http://www.lakewood.cc/se rmons/cs_002.htm, retrieved August 12, 2019; cf. Joel Osteen, Easter service message 2004 on Discover the Champion in You program, Trinity Broadcasting Network, April 26, 2004).|
|3||Rufinus, Commentary 2 (NPNF2 3:543).|
|5||Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 17, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 96.|
|6||“It is established beyond all question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, ‘descended into hell,’” the support for which he finds in the psalmist’s prophecy expounded by Peter, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [Ps 16:10; Acts 2:27]” (Letters 164.2.3 [NPNF 1 1:515–16]). He even reserves the label of “infidel” for anyone rash enough to deny descendit.|
|7||D. Edmond Hiebert, First Peter, p. 226.|
|8||Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude, vol. 16, 142.|
|10||William Perkins, Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed|
|11||John Calvin, Institutes, 516.|
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