When we launched ‘Fish Hooks’ we invited readers to submit their questions and comments (firstname.lastname@example.org). So wouldn’t you know it! The first question submitted was a particularly tough one: “What does it mean in the Apostle’s Creed when it says about Jesus that ‘He descended into hell’?” That’s a really good question – and probably better than the answer we’ll be able to provide!
The first thing we need to be clear about is that the Apostle’s Creed is not found in the Bible nor was it actually given to us by the Apostles. Rather, it is a statement of faith that gradually evolved into its present form over a period of about 500 years and, like any human effort, it isn’t perfect. The earliest version was probably used to teach new converts the essentials of the Christian faith, and it was then modified over time to clarify misunderstandings and push back against false teachings. The “descended into hell” phrase isn’t found in the earliest versions, makes its first appearance around 390 AD, then disappears for a while, only to permanently reappear around 650 AD. From this it can be inferred that this concept might have puzzled earlier Christians too!
So what was this phrase intended to tell us about Jesus? There are a number of theories that Christians hold:
- One pretty good theory was that this wasn’t originally intended to refer to ‘hell’ as a place of punishment, but simply the place where people went when they died, in the ancient Hebrew sense of Sheol (Psalms 16:10) or the Greek sense of Hades (Acts 2:31). Then this phrase simply emphasizes that Jesus really DID die in the normal human manner. That would be important because some early heresies claimed that Jesus couldn’t REALLY have died because He was divine and thus only ‘appeared’ to be dead. So this phrase just affirms the historic Christian understanding that Jesus is a true man who truly died and was raised again.
- Another (not-so-good) theory is that this phrase taught that part of Jesus’ sacrifice was to actually suffer in hell after death as He took on the punishment that should have been ours. Though there can be no doubt that Jesus did suffer the agony of hell on our behalf, the idea that He went there to suffer after dying is contradicted by His statement on the cross that “it is finished” (John 19:30)
- The typical Lutheran theory is that this means that Jesus went to the “spirits in prison” to preach to them. This is based on a Bible passage (1 Peter 3:18-20) that speaks of Jesus doing just that. However, this is also one of the more obscure statements in the Bible: Some say it means that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel as a ‘last chance’ for those who had died before Him, others that this was a triumphant announcement that the power of Satan had been broken. Lutheran theology favors the latter. Since we know Christ’s death on the cross to be the sacrifice that redeemed all who trusted in God for all time (Hebrews 10:8-14) it wasn’t necessary to ‘convert’ the faithful who died before Him. But on the other hand, maybe this was a special act of Grace for those who died without the benefit of knowing Jesus? We really can’t say for certain what transpired.
So when we say the creeds, which of these theories should we be thinking of? Probably the best advice is that given in the Lutheran Formula of Concord: “We should not trouble ourselves with high and difficult thoughts about how this happened.” Our salvation doesn’t depend on comprehending the details of what exactly transpired while Jesus’ body lay in the grave! (And isn’t THAT a good thing!) Knowing with a certainty that Jesus really did suffer death like ours and the agony of being separated from the Father (which is the very definition of ‘hell’) for the salvation of ALL who trust in Him, it’s OK to be fuzzy about the details. And it isn’t an act of bad faith to wonder what exactly those ancient Christians were thinking of when they put these words into the creed (or even whether that was really such a good idea!)