My last post probably did not leave many readers (there are about 10 or 12 of you a day now) wondering about my personal preference on the use of “he descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed. I prefer not to recite it– in fact, I personally don’t recite it. Not because I think it teaches anything heretical, but because I don’t think it’s a helpful addition to the creed. Here are a few reasons.
First of all, the phrase isn’t as well attested as the rest of the Creed. (The Apostles’ Creed in its present form emerged over a few centuries; it wasn’t written at one time like many other confessions.) It appears for the first time in about 350, using the Greek word hades, which can mean “grave,” rather than gehenna which is closer to what the English word hell connotes. The phrase doesn’t show up at all in other versions until about 650. In other words, it’s not clear that anybody meant to say “he descended into hell” the way we mean it in English until AD 650.
Second, you have the different ideas of what the phrase means. Most today suggest that it means he descended to the state of death (which would basically make the Creed say, “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to being dead”) or that he suffered the pain of death (which is true, but is also already captured in “was crucified, died, and was buried”). Or it could possibly mean that he suffered the unspeakable pain of being under God’s wrath, but that’s not what it says– it says he descended into hell. If this is metaphorical language, it’s the only metaphorical statement in a creed that’s basically a collection of straightforward, historically-oriented statements. It seems to me to be out of place.
Third, even though all these options say things that are true and wonderful, I doubt if the average person in the pew means this when they say “he descended into hell.” I have no data for this, but I strongly suspect that if you were to ask people in churches that regularly recite this part of the Creed what it means, you would get lots of different answers, and a lot of people would take it literally– that Christ physically went to hell. I think the answers would be a lot clearer on other parts of the Creed, because the rest of the Creed is very straightforward.
Fourth, the idea of the Apostles’ Creed, as opposed to longer confessions and catechisms, is to boil down the essentials of the faith– to say, “This is what Christians believe.” That’s where the name came from– not that it was written by the apostles but that it was a summary of the essential contents of their message. A phrase whose meaning is confusing and misunderstood by lots of Christians doesn’t seem to help with that goal.
So that’s my beef with “he descended into hell.” It’s not a hill I’d die on, just something that I was reminded of recently. I’d love to hear thoughts anybody has, especially if you disagree!
For more on this, you can read an article by Wayne Grudem that basically says a lot of this same stuff but gives more background.