Hell or no Hell in the Apostles’ Creed?

Anyone who has spent any amount of time thinking through the affirmations contained in the Apostles’ Creed has probably had some struggle over what to do with one peculiar phrase. The phrase, of course, is “he descended into hell.” This phrase is a statement about the work of Christ, and it is vexing to any biblical student. What does it mean? Why was it included? How many Christians have affirmed this belief? Is it biblical? Should I affirm such a thing?

Well, I certainly have asked these questions (and many others) during my time of considering this creed. When I first became deeply interested in the Apostles’ Creed, I had decided to set aside several things that I hoped to see my young son memorize over the course of a lengthy period. The Apostles’ Creed was one of the things I hoped to see my son absorb and recite, and he was able to do it with lightning speed (he was 3 years old at the time). I assumed it would take about 2-3 months, and he had it fully memorized in 3 weeks. We only spent about 5 minutes per night reading through it before we prayed and tucked him into bed.

Before I introduced the creed to him, however, I gave it a thorough look in order to ensure that it would be a benefit to my son. I wanted to teach him solid biblical truth, and I didn’t want to take anything for granted. Upon my first investigative reading and reciting of this creed, I stumbled over that short phrase. In context, the affirmation is “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell…”

The phrase was confusing at best, and I chafed at affirming such a thing. I soon realized that I was not the only one who felt this way, and I began to study up on the creed. I learned that the creed did not show up in Church history in its final form, but that it took shape over time (from about 140 A.D. through about 350 A.D.). This seems like a no-brainer now, but it was a relief to me when I first thought about it in these terms. I also learned that the phrase was most likely not included in the earliest forms of the creed.[1]

Knowing that the phrase may not have been part of the creed all along, I wondered why Christians might have ever introduced it. Some suggested that the phrase was intended to mean nothing more than the reality that Jesus Christ did actually die a real death. That is to say that Christ went to “hell,” meaning the place of outer darkness, the place where humans are cut off from the living, or simply the grave. If that was the case, I reasoned, wasn’t it simply redundant? I mean, the creed already says that He “was crucified, dead and buried.” That sounds pretty clear to me that the creed is affirming that Jesus was actually cut off from the living and lowered to the grave.

Others suggested that the phrase was meant to affirm that Jesus Christ suffered the full wrath of God for sin. “Hell,” they reasoned, is the place or state in which God’s wrath is unleashed finally and ultimately upon all those who die in their sin. Therefore, they continued, Christ did receive in His person the pain of hell (i.e. God’s wrath) as the substitute for all those who would trust Him for salvation. This too is a biblically accurate idea, but the phrase is misplaced in the affirmation if this meaning is to be conveyed.

What I mean is, Christ’s suffering of the pain of God’s wrath was completed on the cross – there was no more suffering to be done postmortem. Jesus declared that His propitiating work was complete upon the cross when He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Therefore, the phrase in the creed (he descended into hell) should not be placed after the affirmation “He was crucified, dead and buried.” Rather, a better placement might be “He was crucified, he descended into hell, died and was buried.” However, this still is more confusing than it is helpful.

In the end, the purpose of any creed is to clearly and concisely affirm what the Bible says. The Bible is the ultimate authority, and the creed is a servant to the biblical truth. If the servant serves well, then it is a good servant and helpful to all who encounter it. If the servant does not serve well, then it deserves to be addressed accordingly. The Apostles’’ Creed is not Scripture, thus it is not inerrant or unchangeable. Where it is good, we affirm; but where it may err, it is my conviction that we not only can correct it, but we should correct it.

Particularly, concerning church leaders and pastors, such a consideration should be given serious thought. Confusion plays a major role in the average Christian’s motivation for all sorts of maladies. The typical church attender is not going to think through what he or she is affirming the way pastors or leaders will, so all of those things that pastors and/or leaders place in front of their congregation on any consistent basis should be as pure and as clear as possible.  The Apostles’ Creed should be a rallying confession of communal faith in the basic elements of the Gospel, and no confusion should be allowed to hinder such a marvelous thing. This is especially true when the only basis for avoiding the change is that it goes against tradition – “that’s the way we/they have always done it.”

In my humble opinion, the phrase should be excluded altogether. This does no harm to the affirmation as a whole, and it eliminates major confusion. The Apostles’ Creed is a splendid body of succinct biblical truth. I pray that many young boys and girls are so privileged as to have parents that will teach them to know and affirm this ancient creed. It is not only food for the soul; it is also a unifying affirmation of truth for all Christians everywhere.

[1] See http://www.ligonier.org/learn/qas/what-does-apostles-creed-mean-when-it-says-jesus-d/ for a short article on the subject, or http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/he-did-not-descend-into-hell_JETS.pdf for another article that is a bit lengthier.