Since around 400 A.D., the Apostles’ Creed has included the words “he descended into hell” as a part of the summary of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. For some reason, this particular part of the creed has fallen out of fashion, at least in some quarters. Too bad, because those four words express thoughts that are supported by scripture, and lend support to orthodox Christian doctrine.
I suppose that part of the reason why these four words have become unpopular (to the point of their omission), is because they present a concept that seems counter to the nature of Jesus’ sinless life. So rather than correct the misunderstanding among the laity, I guess the argument would go, “Let’s avoid anything that might be confusing or difficult to explain. Let’s just not recite those four words if people are made uncomfortable by them.” I fear that kind of avoidance mentality may be a characteristic of far too many churches today.
My gut tells me that most Christ-followers have little difficulty in embracing the reality that Jesus was crucified, that He literally died, and was buried. Those all fit neatly into the Good Friday narratives of Jesus’ trials and execution on the cross. And because Christ-followers are, or should be, familiar with the Easter narrative, they likewise accept that he rose from the dead on the third day. And while many might mistakenly believe that the ascension to heaven was a nearly instantaneous event following his resurrection, that too is a part of their understanding of the Christology.
So, if one embraces these other concepts, shouldn’t it beg the question “what happened during that period of time between Jesus’ burial and his resurrection?” I suppose the simplistic view would be that he simply lay in-state in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. And that is precisely what his body did. But since he was a man (fully God, fully man) what do you suppose was happening with the particular aspect of Jesus’ mortality that was immortal, in other words, his soul? I think with a little study, we can figure it out and in the process, affirm the propriety of declaring Jesus’ descent into hell as we recite this creed.
In one of David’s messianic prophesies, found in Psalm 16, he refers to the Holy One (that is Christ) not being abandoned to the grave, nor being allowed to decay (vs. 10). The word grave is an important one. It is translated from the Hebrew word sheol. Sheol was regarded as the “realm of the dead,” an unknown state where the souls of people who had died were sent. It was not simply a hole in the ground, or a tomb as the English word would suggest. Both good men (Gen. 37:35) and evil men (Num. 16: 30,33) went to sheol. The Jews held the belief that there were two compartments in sheol, to accommodate and distinguish between good and evil. However, the compartment for the good was not be confused with heaven.
This two compartment belief seems to be confirmed by Jesus in Luke 16: 19-31, His parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. In that parable Lazarus is in the company of Abraham in what the Jews called “paradise,” while the rich man was in the other compartment, which was “hellish” in comparison. In another example, Jesus assures one of the thieves on the cross that he would be with Him in “paradise” that very day. Paradise could not have been heaven as Jesus did not ascend to heaven for another 43 days. So, it would be logical to assume that paradise was, pardon the expression, the “good guy” compartment of sheol.
In Acts 2: 27, 31 Peter quoted Psalm 16 during his sermon at Pentecost. The word “grave” was translated from the the Greek word hades. Hades was not considered to be the permanent region of the lost, but rather an intermediate state, just like sheol. And again, hades was not meant to imply a hole in the ground, or a tomb. So, under the inspiration of the recently arrived, and now indwelling Holy Spirit, Peter preached that Jesus Christ went to hades, but was not abandoned there.
David’s prophetic writing, and Luke’s historical account of Peter’s sermon both indicate that Jesus went to, but was not abandoned to sheol or hades and that He was not allowed to see decay. These concepts obviously point to the resurrection. But it seems that they also presuppose that the “Holy One” was in sheol or hades, so as to not be abandoned.
As for doctrine, I believe “he descended into hell” serves to support doctrine and combat heresy.
1. Those four words confirm Jesus’ humanity, because the disposition of his soul (albeit for only three days) mirrored that which was the case for all deceased mankind, prior to The Ascension. The reality of Jesus’ humanity demanded that He share in the fate of man both in life and in death. This experience served in part to equip Jesus as our sympathetic high priest.
2. “Descending into hell” proves that Jesus literally died. And because He was a sinless man, his literal death satisfied God’s righteous requirement of a perfect and unblemished blood sacrifice for sin, in support of the the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
3. These four words are believed to have been included in the Apostles’ Creed to combat Docetism. Docetism was a first century A.D. doctrinal heresy that implied that Christ did not actually become flesh but merely seemed to be a man. The essence of Docetism influenced Mohammed and has survived in some of the doctrines of Islam concerning Jesus!
While some may not be convinced, I am satisfied that scripture teaches us that Jesus “descended into hell.” The issue for many may be the value and meaning we assign to the word “hell.” We have adopted an eternal view of the word rather than the scriptural and contextual meaning. With respect to the Apostles’ Creed and life in general, we need to conform our thinking to scripture rather than the other way around.