An Essay I wrote for my Summer Course at CUI.
REGARDING CHRIST’S DESCENT INTO HELL
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the three ecumenical creeds of the Christian church. These three serve as the official confessions of faith for Christians across the majority of denominations. Though generally agreed upon for centuries, the creeds are not without controversy; individual statements within the creeds can be the source of confusion and scholastic debate. One such statement is found in the Apostles’ Creed, that being the statement of faith concerning Jesus Christ’s descent into hell.
Questions concerning this doctrine vary, ranging from, “Has the church always believed it?” and “Did the church fathers hold to it?” to “What does the doctrine even mean?” This paper will serve as a general overview of this creedal statement, and answering many of the more commonly asked questions in the following ways: briefly looking at the Creed itself, examining and establishing extra-Biblical dating and usage of the statement, looking at the Biblical source for the doctrine, and then explaining the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell from several different perspectives comparing these in light of the Biblical evidence.
A Brief Look At The Apostles’ Creed Itself
Looking at Apostles’ Creed, the focus begins at one of the three major articles, that being article two of the Creed pertaining to Jesus Christ, which reads as follows: And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, 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. He is seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From there He shall come to judge the living and the dead (Kolb-Wengert, 21-22).
Here we see a sequence of events: Christ was born, lived, and died. Following this sequence, Christ then descended into hell, and after this event He rose again on the third day. It is important to clarify here that these things occur in sequential order due to the opinions of the Evangelicals, which will be discussed later. Note also that the purpose for the descent into hell is not confessed, nor if it was done in fullness of body and spirit, or simply done in spirit, rather the Creed merely states that the event occurred, albeit after the death of Christ but before His resurrection.
Extra-Biblical Dating of the Doctrine Concerning Christ’s Descent Into Hell
The question of when the statement concerning Christ’s descent into hell was added to the Apostles Creed and if it was used prior to the addition is important to address. The “modern” Apostles’ Creed, descending from the Roman Symbol, can be dated to approximately the sixth century, seventh at the latest (Leith, 22-24).
It is based on the Old Roman Symbol, which originally dates approximately to the second century, if not earlier (Leith, 22-24). The descent into hell, however, is notably absent in many copies of this older creed, as seen in the Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (215 AD), the Creed of Marcellus (340 AD), and the Creed of Rufinus (404 AD) (Leith, 23). It is only until the 5th century that we see the descent into hell put into a creed based on the Old Roman Symbol, as shown in the Creed of Rufinus (404 AD) where the descent into hell is confessed in the very same manner as found in the Apostles Creed (Leith, 23-24). However, the African Creed, based on information from Augustine of Hippo, more commonly known as the African Variant (400 AD), does not contain the descent into hell as a confessional statement (Leith, 25). This creates an interesting conundrum, as it establishes the descent into hell as a creedal doctrine only after the year 400 AD if one examines the known confessions related to the Apostles’ Creed.
Yet these creeds are not the only witness to the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. This is where the church fathers’ writings are brought forth to see if they recorded any information concerning the descent into hell, and even more importantly if any of them mentioned the doctrine prior to the Creed of Rufinus. One will find in the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria, specifically his writings entitled On the Incarnation of the Word, mulitiple references to Christ’s descent. For instance, in his sixteenth section, Athanasius states, “…the Word revealing Himself everywhere, both above and beneath… above in creation; beneath, in becoming man; in the depth, in Hades; and in the breadth, in the world…” (Robertson, New Advent, Section 16).
Here, Athanasius in writing concerning the incarnation of Christ Jesus, is saying that Jesus revealed Himself in the world and also in hell (Hades). This vague reference seems to indicate that at some point Christ did in fact go into hell in some fashion, and elsewhere Athanasius seems to indicate, “the Word unfolded everywhere, that is in heaven, in Hades, in man, upon earth…” (Robertson, New Advent, Section 45) meaning that Christ was in fact revealed and incarnate in all places of creation, thus included is the descent into hell. Athanasius lived between 296 AD and 373 AD, placing this vague reference to the descent into hell before the Creed of Rufinus.
In his Ortation 45, Gregory Nazianzen, living 329 AD to 390 AD, makes a clear reference to Christ descending into hell, saying in his encouragement of his congregation to be like Christ, saying “If He descend into Hell, descend with him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also…the twofold descent, to save all men absolutely by His manifestation…” (Browne, New Advent, Section XXIV).
In this way, Gregory does in fact make a clear reference to Christ’s descent into hell. Therefore, this reference likely comes around the time of Athanasius, but even if it comes towards the later part of Gregory’s life, it comes before the Creed of Rufinus.
Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived 313 AD to 386 AD, writes in his Catechetical Lecture 11, “He who when present here walked upon the sea… also made the heavens… descended into hell” (Gifford, New Advent, Section 23).
Here, Cyril in the process of describing the actions of Jesus, both as creator, man, and Messiah, lists for us a clear reference to the descent into hell. Basil the Great, living between 329 and 379 AD, writes on the descent into hell. However, he does so in a unique fashion. Basil connects the descent into hell with the sacrament of baptism, explaining it is something all Christians endure, writing “How then do we achieve the descent into hell? By imitating, through baptism, the burial of Christ” (Jackson, New Advent, Section 35).
Basil’s writings would seem to make a much more obvious case than Athanasius. However, Basil’s definition of hell within this context does not seem to be hell as the place where souls are gathered but rather, “…a kind of halt and pause…” (Jackson, New Advent, Section 35) between the old life being put to death and the obtaining of new life. Thus it cannot be said that Basil is truly referring to same sort of descent into hell as that being referred to in the Apostles’ Creed.
Clement of Alexandria, living between 150 AD and 215 AD, writes in The Stromata, Book VI, “the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and guard’?” and also “…the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel…” (Wilson, New Advent, Book VI). This is a clear reference not only to 1 Peter 3:18-20, but also to the descent of Christ into hell comes to us as one of the earliest examples of this doctrine. Even if Clement had written this in the year of his death, 215 AD, it comes much earlier than the Creed of Rufinus.
Irenaeus of Lyons, living sometime in the early 2nd century until 202 AD, writes, “…the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also and [declaring] the remission of sins by those who believe in Him” (Roberts, New Advent, Section 2). This reference comes from approximately 180 AD, and implies the descent into hell through the colloquial use of referring to regions beneath the earth, which is commonly understood as Hades, or hell. Thus the wording and description of the doctrine can extra-Biblically be dated to at least 180 AD.
The Descent into Hell According to the Scriptures
Christian Doctrines, especially those found in the creeds, and certainly the Apostles’ Creed, are found in multitude in the Bible. Christ’s descent into hell, however, is found in only a single place in the whole of the New Testament: 1 Peter 3:18-20. The text in English reads as follows:
18 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, 19 in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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.
Though these series of verses do not use the specific language of the Apostles’ Creed—that being descended into hell—the reference to the spirits in prison has been traditionally understood to be directly referring to hell.
However, an important distinction should be made, especially when looking at the Greek text that reads as follows: 18 ὅτι καὶ Χριστὸς ἅπαξ περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν ἀπέθανεν, δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων, ἵνα ὑμᾶς προσαγάγῃ τῷ θεῷ, θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ, ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι, 19 ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν, 20 ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ, εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτʼ ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν διʼ ὕδατος (Tischendorf, 290-292).
The words are more traditionally and consistently associated with hell, those being ᾅδου (e.g. Luke 10:15) and γέενναν (e.g. Matthew 5:30) are not present in the text. Instead, the prison is referred to as φυλακῇ, which is nowhere else in the Bible found to be referring to hell, and is often used when referring to a temporal earthly prison. However, it is context within the Greek—and the English for that matter—that leads us to confidently say these verses communicate Christ’s descent into hell.
To begin with, we can discount the φυλακῇ as referring to a temporal prison because the occupants of this prison are described as being πνεύμασιν (spirits), not beings of mortal flesh, not men (ἄνθρωπος). Therefore, it is a prison for spirits. But what sort of spirits? To determine that, we must look at what the prison is not. This prison is not the κόλπον Ἀβραάμ, or the Bosom of Abraham as found in Luke 16:22, as part of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
The reason for this is that only those who are righteous and men of God may enter into the κόλπον Ἀβραάμ. How do we know this? Because the rich man in the parable found himself in ᾅδῃ, that is, Hades or hell. The reason for this is also found in the parable, in that the rich man did not repent and did not believe the words of the prophets and Moses. It is implied, then, that Lazarus did repent and did believe the words of the prophets and Moses. But how does this apply to the location as discussed in 1 Peter 3:19? Because in the very next verse (v. 20), the spirits are described with ἀπειθήσασίν, that is, those who rebelled and disobeyed. And who did they rebel against and disobey? It was God. Thus, these spirits cannot be in the Bosom of Abraham. And it must be concluded that they are in the prison of Hades or hell.
So, the prison is for those who disobeyed. How does this mean they were preached to? Well, the explanation is almost rhetorical. One need only look back at the English translation. Christ, having been slain, yet raised in the spirit, πορευθεὶς—that is, traveled to the spirits in the prison—and ἐκήρυξεν—that is preached, to the spirits. The Greek word ἐκήρυξεν is used all throughout Scripture to refer to preaching and public proclamation of the Good News—the Gospel—of Christ. From all of this, it can be concluded that this section of Scripture is in fact speaking of the descent into hell by Christ Jesus, wherein He preached to the sinners in the prison. Yet what is missing here? The purpose of the preaching, and it is this aspect of the doctrine of the descent into hell that causes the most confusion and dispute, and moves the paper forward into the next section.
Christ’s Descent Into Hell: What Does This Mean?
To begin to decode what the descent into hell as a doctrine means, we will take a look at the position put forth by Martin Luther himself during his sermon on 1 Peter.
When discussing 1 Peter 3:19-20, Luther begins with the acknowledgment that the passage in question is difficult to understand and is obscure, saying, “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament” (Pelikan, 113). In the same way, Luther makes the same statement about the creedal doctrine in turn, as the doctrine depends on these verses. Interestingly enough, Luther is not confident that a plain and obvious reading of the verses is sufficient to explain what is going on therein.
What is meant by this is that Luther does say one can read the verses in such a way that they communicate the following “…the words give the impression that Christ preached to the spirits, that is, to the souls who did not believe many years ago, when Noah was building the ark.” Luther also states, “…if anyone chooses to maintain that after Christ had died on the cross, He descended to the souls and preached to them there, I will not stand in the way. These words could give such a meaning” (Pelikan, 113). Yet as mentioned previously, Luther did not prefer this meaning.
Instead, Luther states that this preaching took place after Christ ascended into heaven, and even after His resurrection, and that this preaching was not physical as in Christ Himself traveled to hell. Luther wraps this in the logic that Christ is spirit in Heaven, He did not speak with a physical voice, nor any functions of the body. Luther points to the fact that the text reads Christ was made alive in the spirit, indicating that it is by this manner in which Christ preached to the spirits in prison, thus any preaching was in spirit, working inwardly in the heart and soul (Pelikan, 113).
Luther even goes further, indicating that the spirits in prison are not only those who disobeyed in the time of Noah, but rather those such spirits are merely a figure of speech, a synecdoche, and indeed the spirits who were preached to by Christ are all of those who have disobeyed and rebelled against God (Pelikan, 114).
Luther defends this in the section right before this stating that time to God is not linear, but rather to God time exists in all frames, thus this preaching occurred once, occurs now, and will occur in the future (Pelikan, 114). Luther concludes this doctrinal explanation by stating his reason for the venture in that he “”…cannot believe that Christ descended to the souls and preached to them there. Scripture is against this and states that everyone, when he comes to that place [hell], will receive as he believed and lived” (Pelikan, 114-115).
For you see, Luther’s objection to the more plain reading was rooted in his belief in the efficacious nature of preaching the Gospel, and to Luther if Christ were to preach to the captives in hell, the Word of the Gospel would be to work faith, and such captives cannot have faith since they rejected God. Thus, to Luther such Gospel preaching would be in vain, and God would not do anything in vain. Yet we must be critical of Luther’s view presented here. For one, this represents a younger and less theologically developed Luther, as the Sermons on 1 Peter were written and preached in 1523. Second, Luther goes far and beyond the text available to him, and inserts far too much conjecture into the two verses. In this way, he adds to Scripture without truly realizing it because he assumes he knows what is not written. Third, as part of his assumption, Luther forces the content and purpose of Christ’s preaching to be the evangelical proclamation of the Gospel for the purpose of saving souls.
Yet perhaps this is not the purpose for the preaching. Luther assumes too much about the text. Fourth, Luther goes against the sequential order of the Creed and places this preaching after the resurrection of Christ, which the text alone cannot support, as it indicates that Christ was only made alive in the spirit, saying nothing of the resurrection of His flesh. And fifth, as Martin H. Scharlemann states in his article concerning these verses, “…Christ ‘went’ and made proclamation. This very important verb… makes impossible a spiritual interpretation of the verse” (“He Descended into Hell”).
Thus, Scharlemann opposes Luther here on the basis of the Greek language. Scharlemann is correct here, thus Luther cannot rightfully say that the πορευθεὶς occurred spiritually, but rather Christ in some fashion. Even if He were a spirit in a fashion, Christ literally went to hell. Thus, this earlier view from Luther cannot be accepted as the proper view concerning the meaning of the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. It is logical here to turn to the Lutheran Confessions and examine what they say concerning the descent into hell.
The Confessions, specifically the Formula of Concord (both the Epitome and the Solid Declaration) speaks of the doctrine in article IX, aptly titled “Concerning Christ’s Descent into Hell.” In this section, the Formulators acknowledge there is some dispute concerning the doctrine, especially concerning whether the descent occurred before or after Christ’s death and whether Christ descended in body, spirit, or fully (Kolb-Wengert, 514-515). Additionally, they write that there were those who questioned whether Christ’s descent was part of his suffering or if it was part of His victory over sin, death, and the devil (Kolb-Wengert, 514).
It is here that the Formulators reveal an adherence to the position of an older more mature Luther when they mention his sermon at Torgau, in 1533 AD (Kolb-Wengert, 514). It was here in that sermon that the more mature Luther states, “Before Christ arose and ascended into heaven, and while yet lying in the grave, He also descended into hell in order to deliver also us from it, who were to be held in it as prisoners… I shall not discuss this article… as to how it was done or what it means…” (Bente, Historical Introductions).
Additionally, Luther states something the Formulators adhere along with him, “…I must not divine [the person of Christ] here… but believe and say that the same Christ, God and man in one person, descended into hell but did not remain in it…” (Bente). This stands in great contrast to the younger Luther discussed above, and adheres much closer to the Biblical text. The Formulators continue, stating, “…we know that Christ descended into hell and destroyed hell for all believers and that he redeemed them from the power of death, the devil, and eternal damnation of hellish retribution” (Kolb-Wengert, 514).
They continue in the Solid Declaration, saying, “In this Creed the burial and Christ’s descent into hell are distinguished as two different articles, and we believe simply that the the entire person, God and human being, descended into hell after His burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all of his power” (Kolb-Wengert, 635). These statements from the Formula are in keeping with Luther’s later stance at Torgau—though he expands on the gravity of Christ’s descent, making it not just a proclamation of victorious Gospel, but in fact in using the language in the way that they did—the Formulators make the descent into hell a part of Christ’s work in achieving salvation (Kolb-Wengert, 635).
But the Formulators end their speculation at the description of Christ’s action of triumph and destruction of hell. They do not speculate as to how it happened, saying, “How that happened we should save for the next world…” and that the truth of Christ’s descent must be grasped by faith (Kolb-Wenger, 514-515). The Lutheran Confessions, in this way ,make an inference that would perhaps make the younger Luther more comfortable with the idea of Christ’s proclamation.
Though the Formulators assume concerning the content of Christ’s proclamation to the spirits in prison, they assume contrary to the younger Luther who saw the preaching as the preaching of the Gospel for the purpose of salvation. Instead, the Formulators assume into the text that this proclamation is for the purpose of proclaiming victory. Grammatically, this makes more sense than to assume the Gospel is being preached towards salvation. How? Generally (there are some exceptions) when κηρύσσω is found to be referring to Gospel preaching, it is connected to εὐαγγέλιον and many times βασιλεία—that is, the preaching of the Gospel and the Kingdom respectively (e.g. Matthew 4:23: κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας. Or Matthew 10:7: πορευόμενοι δὲ κηρύσσετε λέγοντες ὅτι Ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν). But in 1 Peter 3:19, neither εὐαγγέλιον nor βασιλεία are found in any form.
Where κηρύσσω is not connected to these, it is often connected with the context of what is occurring—that is, the preaching of a specific message or teaching by Christ or the Apostles. Yet again, in 1 Peter 3:19, this is absent. So, the Formulators err on the side of mercy even to the spirits in prison, in that God would not dangle the Gospel of salvation to them while at the same time they had no chance to be saved by it. Instead, they take upon the concept that these spirits are hostile to God, enemies of Him, rebels against Him, ἀπειθή, and this proclamation is one of victory over evil and the enemies of God. Additionally, the position of the Formulators is consistent with the rest of Scripture, specifically the verses in Scripture that reveal once a man dies he goes to face judgment.
Those verses—as well as Hebrews 9:27—seem to strongly indicate there is no second chance after death, but rather they had their chance in this life and thus are condemned or raised to heaven based on their faith or rejection of faith. This is also supported by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Thus, God’s proclamation in hell cannot be to provide a second chance for those who are there, but rather to proclaim His victory. The most viable conclusion concerning the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell then goes alongside the Lutheran Confessions in that: After Christ died, He descended into hell, wherein He proclaimed His victory and triumph to the rebellious enemies of God. This is in keeping with the text as found in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and in keeping with good theological order.
Dealing with the Issue of Paradise
One argument that stands against the sequential preaching to the spirits in prison and the descent into hell is the biblical fact that Christ promised He would be in paradise saying to the thief on the cross: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43b). It would seem, then, that Christ went to heaven after dying if the reading is taken as absolute. Yet Christ did not say He would be with the thief within the next hour or few hours.
Rather, Christ promises to be with the thief in Παραδείσῳ—in that same day. To assume Christ could not have died, traveled (πορευθεὶς) to hell and preached there, and then gone into Paradise, is to assume that Christ is not God, or that God had no control over the situation, let alone time and space. It is extremely plausible that Christ died in His flesh, traveled to hell and proclaimed victory, and then ascended into heaven. Just as likely is that Christ died in His flesh, traveled to Paradise, and then descended into hell and proclaimed His victory. Christ’s Promise and descent are not exclusive, and nothing indicates that one would prevent the other.
The discussion on the descent into hell is vast and to touch on every theory and subtopic would require a much longer paper. However, it can be confidently concluded that the doctrine has always existed in the Christian faith, being contained in the Bible—specifically 1 Peter—and was written about by multiple church fathers starting at least at 180 AD and going forward, and that it represents a crucial moment of the works of Christ, wherein He declared Himself to the enemies of God and broke the bonds of hell in the process. In this way, this paper serves as a brief resource for those seeking to understand this doctrine in a clear and concise manner without having to comb through the vast number of resources available on the topic.
I have selected the image for this article based on the conclusion of the article. Christ’s descent into hell is one of victory and triumph. Therefore, I selected an image of Christ Victorious and Triumphant to be the image for the article.
Bente, Friedrich. Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions: XIX Controversy on Christ’s Descent into Hell. 218. Luther’s Doctrine. (http://bookofconcord.org/historical-19.php, Accessed 7/21/16).
Browne, Charles Gordon and James Edward Swallow, trans. New Advent – Fathers of the Church: Oration 45 by Gregory Nazianzen (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310245.htm. Accessed 7/21/16) Section XXIV. From Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 7 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1894).
Gifford, Edwin Hamilton trans. New Advent – Fathers of the Church: Catechetical Lecture 11 by Cyril of Jerusalem (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310111.htm. Accessed 7/21/16) Section 23. From Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 7 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1894).
Jackson, Bloomfield trans. New Advent – Fathers of the Church: De Spiritu Sancto, by Basil. (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3203.htm. Accessed 7/21/16) Chapter 15, section 35. From Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 8 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1895).
Kolb, Robert and Timothy Wengert. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.
Leith, John. Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd edition. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press 1982.
Pelikan, Jaroslav ed, Luther’s Works: Volume 30 – The Catholic Epistle. St. Louis, MS: Concordia Publishing House, 1967.
Roberts, Alexander and William Rambaut trans,. Against the Heresies: Book IV. Chapter 27 by Irenaeus (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103427.htm. Accessed 7/21/16) Section 2. From Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 1. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1885.
Robertson, Archibald trans. New Advent – Fathers of the Church: On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius (www.newadvent.org/fathers/2802.htm, Accessed 7/21/16) Section 16. From Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 4. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1892.
Scharlemann, Martin H. “He Descended into Hell” An Interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20, (http://www.godawa.com/chronicles_of_the_nephilim/Articles_By_Others/Scharlemann%20-%20He%20Descended%20into%20Hell.pdf, Accessed 7/21/16) 8.
Tischendorf, Constantinus trans. Novum Testamentum Graece (Logos Bible Software) Ulrik Sandborg-Peterson, G. Clint Yale, and Maurice A. Robinson eds.
Wilson, William trans. New Advent – Fathers of the Church: The Stromata – Book VI, by Clement of Alexandria. (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02106.htm. Accessed 7/21/16) Chapter 6. From Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1885.