“He Descended Into Hell”

In the back of my Bible, I have a copy of the Apostles’ Creed, and it contains the line “He descended into hell,” which I tend to recite.  But there are leading evangelical figures who object to this line, contending that it has no biblical basis.

1.  For example, in a sermon here, noted Reformed pastor and author John Piper says that there is no textual basis for believing Christ descended into hell, and finds no suport in the oft used Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20–so he does not recite it.  However, to his credit he urges a self-study to see whether there are other foundations for it.

2.  In his popular Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem also argues against “He descended into hell,” concluding thus: “My own judgment is that there would be all gain and no loss if it were dropped from the Creed once for all” (pp. 583-594).  The reader will find three pages of a chart, tracing the gradual formation of the Apostles’ Creed from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 750.   Grudem’s main points for dropping “He descended into hell” may be summed up thus: “It has no clear warrant from Scripture and indeed seems to be contradicted by some passages in Scripture.  It has no claim to being ‘apostolic’ and no support (in the sense of a ‘descent into hell’) from the first six centuries of the church.  It was not in the earliest versions of the Creed and was only included in it later because of an apparent misunderstanding about its meaning” (p. 594).

3.  However, we find another Reformed thinker, Carl R. Trueman, contesting that “the creed’s offense at this point [“He descended into hell”] is based more on a surface reading of the words from a later context than upon their original intent.  He goes on to say that “we should not abandon a clause in a creed simply because we do not understand it at first reading” (The Creedal Imperative, p. 90; see my review here).

After weighing the biblical and theological objections, and the historical perspective, particularly by Grudem, for the moment, I side with the wisdom of Trueman, noting a meaning which does not contradict the rest of Scripture.

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13 Responses to “He Descended Into Hell”

  1. R. Mansfield says:

    I wonder what the original word is underlying the English “hell.” If perhaps it’s “Hades,” then that could be interpreted as “grave” for which I couldn’t see as problematic,

  2. Lon says:

    I’m not sure about “descended” into a literal, physical space called hell. I am sure he “suffered the agony” of hell, i.e. the the abandonment of the Father and the cup of His wrath poured out upon him.

  3. David Beirne says:

    I am lined up with Lon as I think the Christ suffered every bit of the wrath my sin deserved. His suffering, imho, would need to include the spiritual aspect. I think it went beyond, “My God, why have you forsaken Me?” While He may not have descended to the place prepared for the devil and his angels, I think there is enough wiggle room in Eph. 4:7-9 (and its use of Psa 68) that while we may or may not base a doctrine important enough to make it into a creed there is, I would say, sufficient evidence to say the suffering went beyond the cross. Now, that may also contradict the “It is finished” statement. Is that wishy washy enough?

  4. Simon says:

    Guys, the interpretation of the Church regarding this clause in the Creed is unanimous. Christ descends into Hades. On Holy Saturday (Or the “Great Sabbath” as the Orthodox call it), Orthodox Christians display the icon of Christ in Hell leading Adam and Eve out of the grave (of course not to be taken literally, but symbolic of Christ’s defeat of hell and death). You can read Chrysostom’s Paschal homily for a clear allusions to Christ’s descent into hell.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here. The Creeds are there for us to confess, not to edit. I think the evangelical distortion of the doctrine of hell and the afterlife really creates problems. That part of the Creed really shows why Christianity deals so effectively with the problem of evil and death. Chrysostom says that Christ descended into the lower regions and hell was “embittered”, “abolished”, “mocked”, “purged”, “despoiled” and “bound in chains”. Now for the Reformed who think that hell/hades/gehenna etc means eternal torture, then Chrysostom’s Easter homily is problematic. It’s not so problematic if we recognise that there was enormous diversity in the Church about what hell consists in. St Gregory of Nyssa was very close to universalism. St Isaac of Syria described hell as the experience of those who close their hearts to God’s love. CS Lewis’ description of hell is very close to the sentiments of St Isaac. NT Wright seems to have moved in this direction too, as has the Catholic apologist Father Barron. Dogmatizing a medieval notion of hell does no good. There is no point trying to call Dante’s hell THE traditional teaching on hell – it wasn’t. The Creed proves this, which is why conservative evangelicals do theological gymnastics to explain it away. Either that, or they are like Grudem and Piper who flat out deny this part of the Creed because it’s plain meaning is so clear. What the real problem is, is that the conservative evangelical philosophical assumptions preclude them from even considering other interpretations of hell. The early church, particularly in the East, recognised that there are things that can’t be known in concrete details – the afterlife was one of these things, which is why the doctrine of hell is not dogmatized. In fact the Creeds would seem to contradict the medieval/conservative evangelical notion of hell. Particularly when we consider that the descent in hell was and is a key teaching in Churches who have historical connections to the Fathers and Apostles. TC, I really do think that this part of the Creed really exposes Reformed claims to continuity with the Apostolic church. The teaching of Christ’s descent into hell is perhaps one of the clearest teachings of the Early Church – The Creed proves this.

    • TC says:

      Simon, this is no easy matter. Yes, Lewis’ The Great Divorce. You’re correct about Wright. This comes out in Surprised by Hope. If you’re correct about the medieval impact, then we need to rethink the subject.

      Thanks for the Fr. Barron clip. Good stuff. Yes, Lewis at the core. ;)

      • Simon says:

        I understand evangelical anxieties about this doctrine. I think there is nothing to fear though. It’s only when we become so rigid and dogmatic that we fear. Don’t get me wrong. Dogma is essential. I (try) to pray the Nicene Creed every day. But if you actually look at the Creeds, dogmatic statements are actually limited to only a few doctrines – and hell ain’t one of them! This is what I find problematic about Protestant confessionalism. Protestant confessions go much further than the Church had gone before, on issues not necessarily connected with the Reformation disputes – like hell and the atonement. So they backed themselves into a corner on some of these things. And when guys like Aulen actually prove that the evidence for penal sub, for instance, in the first millenium is scant to say the least, it is hard to recant those confessions formulated by the Reformers themselves. If they are wrong about this, then what else are they wrong about? Which is exactly the conclusion I have come to. Those were the questions I was asking myself. It would have been far better for the Reformers to have stuck only with the matters in dispute at the Reformation, like justification, pergatory etc. Instead they tried to reinvent the Creeds, in my opinion, and systemize the entire faith in their Confessional statements. I don’t think this can be done. The Christian faith includes the Creeds, the Church, the Liturgy, the prayers, the Scriptures. It cannot be contained in a confessional statement, particularly not the “statements of faith” that one typically finds on evangelical websites. I think this one reason for evangelical anxiety on certain theological issues. Anyways, my 2 bob!

  5. Simon says:

    Here is Father Robert Barron on hell. This is typical of good theology of thinking Christians

  6. TC says:

    Simon, I believe Scripture allows for unity in diversity here. As you know, because some evangelicals hold certain doctrines about the work of Christ, confessing this line presents a doctrinal and theological problem. Neither do I believe in the infallibility of the Creeds and Confessions.

  7. theronn says:

    That Christ descended into hell is a big deal to the Orthodox.

    Here’s a great article describing the significance:

    http://glory2godforallthings.com/bishop-hilarion-alfeyev-on-the-descent-of-christ-into-hades/

    A lot of the confusion are the words. Descending into the Grave or Hades would be better. There is no sense of punishment here or receiving the full wrath of the Father. Christ was paving the way of salvation for us, through the cross, into death, and ultimately to resurrection.

    • TC says:

      Theronn, thanks for stopping by. I read your interview with Trevin Wax, “Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy.” You had to make some rather radical shifts.

      I perused the article to the link you provided. No one seems to agree. :D

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