It is sometimes argued that Christ descended into hell after he died.
The widely used Apostles’ Creed reads:
“…Was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.”
But the phrase “he descended into hell” does not occur in the Bible.
Where did the phrase come from?
A murky background lies behind much of the history of the phrase itself. Its origins, where they can be found, are far from praiseworthy.
It is surprising to find that the phrase “he descended into hell” was not found in any of the early versions of the Creed (in the versions used in Rome, in the rest of Italy, and in Africa) until it appeared in one of two versions from Rufinus in A.D. 390.
Then it was not included again in any version of the Creed until A.D. 650.
Moreover, Rufinus, the only person who included it before A.D. 650, did not think that it meant that Christ descended into hell, but understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ was “buried.” In other words, he took it to mean that Christ “descended into the grave.” (The Greek form has hadēs, which can mean just “grave,” not geenna, “hell, place of punishment.”).
We should also note that the phrase only appears in one of the two versions of the Creed that we have from Rufinus: it was not in the Roman form of the Creed that he preserved.
This means, therefore, that until A.D. 650 no version of the Creed included this phrase with the intention of saying that Christ “descended into hell”—and the only version to include the phrase before A.D. 650 gives it a different meaning.
Later when the phrase was incorporated into different versions of the Creed that already had the phrase “and buried,” some other explanation had to be given to it.
There have been three possible meanings proposed throughout church history:
- Some take this phrase to mean that Christ suffered the pains of hell while on the cross. [John] Calvin takes this approach, as does the Heidelberg Catechism.
- Others have understood it to mean that Christ continued in the “state of death” until his resurrection. The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 50 takes this approach: “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.”
- Finally, some have argued that the phrase means just what it appears to mean on first reading: that Christ actually did descend into hell after his death on the cross. [Not to suffer for those three days, but to grab the keys of sin and death from Satan and then to meet His fellow crucified thief on the cross in “paradise” (see Luke 33:43).]
This is a reposted portion of a blog from Zondervan Academic Press. To read the whole article click here.