Did Jesus “Descend into Hell?” (Explained in 3 Minutes)

So, what did Jesus do between his death on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Sunday morning? The early church had a line in the earliest known creed, the Apostles Creed, which reads “He descended into hell,” according to the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, the version familiar to most English readers.

Most Christians who affirm this creed, and believe it, recite this line without thinking much about what it means. Other Christians refuse to recite this part of the creed, believing that this line is not in alignment with the Bible. So, what’s story with the whole “descended into hell” stuff? Is it in the Bible or is it not?

The CredoHouse, out of Oklahoma, develops fantastic educational resources geared to help average Christians gain a handle on advanced theological concepts. I highly recommend them for use in adult Sunday School classes. In this 3-minute video snippet, Michael Patton, the lead instructor at the Credo House, does a great job succinctly tackling the subject that would probably take hours to sufficiently unpack.

The key controversial verses behind the “He descended into hell” clause are mainly Acts 2:31, 1 Peter 4:6, and 1 Peter 3:18-20, leading many Christians to traditionally believe in the so-called “Harrowing of Hell,” when Jesus preached to the souls that died previously to the appearance of Christ upon the stage of world history. Listen to how Michael Patton summarizes other various viewpoints.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

7 responses to “Did Jesus “Descend into Hell?” (Explained in 3 Minutes)

  • Jane Hanson

    I remember “having it out” on this issue in high school with an evangelical friend who, when I shared the Apostle’s Creed with him, took offense with that part and said it wasn’t biblical. Only knowing the Book of Common Prayer and not the Bible at the time, I was sure he was wrong. Thanks for posting this.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Thanks, Jane. I have had a few conversations like that as well!

      The Anglican in me would like to keep the creed, and have it recited more often, but I can understand why others might have some qualms about it.

      However, I am hesitant to start taking lines out of the Apostles Creed, for the simple reason that once you start taking one line out of this, the most ancient creed of the church, what prevents people from taking other lines out of the creed that they do not find agreeable? For example, while the Apostles Creed does not give us the type of full-blown Trinitarian theology that you find in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, it at least gives you a framework for God’s Triune nature, a framework that folks like the Jehovah’s Witnesses say is not in the Bible. I do not have the chutzpah to throw the early church under the bus, on such a fundamental level.

      Plus, it still leaves some questions as what those particular texts mentioned above actually mean, if they do not somehow refer to “descend into hell.” At some point, I hope to post something regarding some further thinking that evangelical scholars today have done regarding the interpretation of those verses.

      What I appreciate about Michael Patton’s response is that he lays out some of the broader possibilities, as to how to interpret the controversial clause. It could simply be, as Patton suggests, that Christ went into death, and stayed dead, until the third day. In other words, his Resurrection was no mere resuscitation. The creed is thereby affirming that Jesus really was dead, and He really was Resurrected afterwards. I would think that any evangelical Protestant should be able to sign off on that.

      The problem is that we have no surviving commentary on the Apostles Creed that spells this out. It could be the “Harrowing of Hell” idea, but we just do not know for sure. It is what it is.

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  • John Paine

    Did Jesus Really Descend into Hell? | Zondervan Academic Blog | Zondervan Academic https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/did-jesus-really-descend-into-hell/

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Thanks, John. Wayne Grudem’s analysis is very helpful. As I mentioned in my response to Jane above, I was hoping to write another blog post at some point, that goes into more detail. But the Grudem article you link to gets at all of the main issues in a very succinct manner.

      See Grudem’s extended analysis on pages 586-594 of the Apostles Creed in his _Systematic Theology._

      What I wish Grudem would have pointed out more clearly is that the language of “hell” in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer version reflects a certain medieval bias that restricts its meaning. The earlier Latin has “infernus” for that word, that has a much broader, less specific meaning: “of the lower regions.” As with a number of passages in the classic King James Version of the Bible, there are references to “hell” that should more properly be translated as something like “realm of the dead,” which is less restrictive and purposely ambiguous.

      Acts 2:27 is a case in point. Compare KJV with the ESV and NIV 2011:

      https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%202%3A27&version=KJV;ESV;NIV

      This is one of the reasons why the official Roman Catholic English translation of the creed, as of 2013, now shows the phrase as reading:

      “He descended to the dead.”

      http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P13.HTM

      What I did not know until now is that the Eastern Orthodox church has never affirmed the Apostles Creed for use in their tradition, as the Apostles Creed has had no ecumenical creed behind it authorizing its use. Some even claim that the Nicene Creed, which is authorized, predates the Apostles Creed.

      http://www.crivoice.org/creedsearly.html

      For those Protestants who do not like the “descensus” clause, you can now score one in favor of the Eastern Orthodox 🙂

      I tend to lean more towards the rejoinder to Grudem, offered by Lutheran scholar, David P. Scaer, but I am not dogmatic. I would much rather see the Nicene-Constatinople Creed recited more often, than the Apostles Creed. The only real advantage of the Apostles Creed is that it is shorter, and easier to memorize, but it is open to far more critique than the Nicene Creed, due to the former’s brevity. My main concern is once you start tampering with the ancient creeds, as Grudem leans towards doing, there is no end to such tampering.

      https://www.intoxicatedonlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/David-Scaer.pdf

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    • Clarke Morledge

      I need to amend my last comment. There are those would say that actually the 1662 BCP version of “descended into hell,” along with a number of passages in the King James Version of the Bible, are actually accurate translations of the original Greek Biblical idea of “Hades.”

      The Latin “infernos” has the same meaning of “Hades,” broadly speaking. The problem is that the connotation of “hell,” in modern English has changed. No longer does “hell’ retain the meaning of the “realm of the dead,” including both the righteous and the unrighteous, as it did during the Elizabethan age. Instead, we typically think of “hell,” in this context, as being the final destiny of the wicked specifically, paralleling the concept of “Gehenna,” as opposed to “Hades.”

      I am surely not an expert in the history of English, so I stand corrected, if I was wrong in the previous comment.

      But the place we are in today is still the same: The modern concept of “hell” is quite a bit different than “Hades,” or traditional “infernos” (from the Latin). As a result, the controversy over “he descended into hell,” is made worse by the fact of either (a) the KJV and Elizabethan scholars of the BCP got “hell” wrong, as I stated previously, or (b) the English language has shifted the meaning of “hell” since the 16th century.

      It is just sad that the commentary work on the production of the KJV, that could help to settle some of the discussion about “hell” vs. “hades” has largely been lost over the years.

      Aside from that, I stand by my previous comment. If Wayne Grudem ever updates his Systematic Theology, I wonder if I can convince him to elaborate a little more on this!

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  • Clarke Morledge

    I may have to put another book on my “to-be-read” list: Catherine Ella Laufer’s _Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead_.

    Laufer makes the same point I am basically trying to make, but her scholarship is more nuanced, and more accurate than what I have been trying to say, and her reasoning explains a lot. Here is her description of the etymology of “hell,” as found in the Apostles Creed, contra Grudem, regarding the various sources by the mid-7th century, for slightly different versions of the creed, on her page 30:

    “The Latin varies: descendit ad inferna, descendit ad inferos, descendit ad incertum and ab inferis resurrectionis all occur in different documents. The two root words of the these expressions, infernus and inferos, are synonyms for the underworld or ‘lower parts of the earth’, the place of the dead….subterranean parts, or [as with the Greek] Hades, the realm of the dead….. The English translation ‘he descended into hell’… [carries] the implication of descent to the place of eternal punishment although the root of the English word at least held no such meaning. The recent English translation ‘he descended to the dead’ is a more accurate rendering of the sense of the Latin text and its Greek precursor.”

    Bingo.

    Should the descensus clause be removed as Wayne Grudem proposes? Here is Laufer’s answer, grabbed from another blogger:

    https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/07/21/on-removing-the-descent-clause-from-the-creeds/

    “What consequences would there be if the [descensus] clause were removed [from the Creeds]? Two most serious ones: an incomplete incarnation and a pseudo-resurrection could result. If there is no affirmed belief that Jesus descended to the dead but only that his body was entombed, then it is quite consistent to hold to the Apollinarian view that Christ’s person comprised divine intellect ‘within’ a human body. Bodily death would presumably free the divine intellect to return whence it orginated. . . . Moreover, without the descensus clause the resurrection is called into doubt. . . . Without it, Christ need not truly die upon the cross, for without the descent, the entombed body can merely be in a coma; without the descent, resurrection easily becomes revivification (181-82)”

    Okay, so Laufer is indeed an Anglican, and so I am on her team, but her reasoning is quite sound. Grudem may be quite right about the interpretation of the disputed passages, but by removing the clause, he risks pulling out a very critical, Scriptural affirmation of the faith.

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  • Clarke Morledge

    Corby Amos, a Baptist Bible teacher in Suffolk, Virginia, has a great set of teachings on this, at his “Odd in the Truth” blog:

    http://www.oddinthetruth.com/jesus-descended-to-the-dead-why-christians-dont-go-to-sheol/

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