In a simple but substantial summary of our faith called the Apostle’s Creed we encounter a very peculiar phrase…
“He descended into hell.”
One popular interpretation says that Christ went to the place of dead to announce redemption for the righteous who died before Christ.
But that interpretation is wrong. A little history is in order.
Why the Church Crafts Creeds
Historically, creeds have been crafted by the church to refute a specific heresy that’s threatening the church at that time.
The Nicene Creed refutes the heresy of Arius in the fourth century. The Council of Trent spelled out for the Roman Catholic church the major points of contention between them and Protestants in the 1500s.
The Apostle’s creed–circa the first or second century–has Gnosticism in it’s cross hairs.
In this case, Gnosticism denied the humanity of Christ. They denied the Incarnation and even differentiated between Christ [divine] and Jesus [human].
They argued Jesus didn’t become Christ’ spokesperson until his baptism [when the spirit descended on him] and the spirit left him before he died on the cross.
Thus, when Gnostics denied the humanity of Christ, they are basically arguing that he was never actually a flesh-and-bone person–that means he never suffered or died.
Which brings us to the point of this post.
The Meaning Behind “He Descended into Hell”
In the face of this heresy, up crops the Apostle’s Creed, hammering home the point that Jesus was not only God–but fully human as Scripture declares:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
In other words, Christ the God-man was born like a man, suffered like a man and died like a man.
And because Jesus’ humanity is at stake here the composers want to make sure this is clear: Jesus died.
James Kiefer said, ” The reference to the descent into Hades (or Hell, or Sheol) is here to make it clear that the death of Jesus was not just a swoon or a coma, but death in every sense of the word.”
And this includes spiritual death. Calvin says:
If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.
Therefore, “he descended into hell” suggests Jesus absorbed the full force of God’s punishment of mankind’s sins–past, present and future.
How a Creed Grows Over Time
It should be noted that the article “he descended into hell” doesn’t show up in the earliest form of the creed–the Old Roman Form. This article creeps in around 390 A. D.
That’s right: the form of the Apostle’s Creed we recite in church today wasn’t crystallized in one day–or even one year.
More than likely the Apostle’s Creed began as a very simple formula “I believe in God the Father” and accumulated articles [“maker of heaven and earth” and “he descended into hell”] over time as the church sought to maintain purity of the historical doctrines of the church as outside threats grew, like Gnosticism.
This process took about 400 years. Give or take a century.
One Final Thought
The precision of the creed is not an accident. There is deep meaning and reason behind each word, each article, as I demonstrated above with the phrase “he descended into hell.”
Let’s look at another example that’s relevant to our discussion
The phrase “suffered under Pontius Pilate” hammers home this point about the humanity of Christ: We can date Jesus’ death.
Why is this important? In the Hellenistic culture in which Christianity sprung and grew, competing claims of dying and rising gods typical in vegetation myths were abundant.
If you asked first century polytheist “When did Adonis die?” He’d say, “Long ago.” No definitive date, because no historical person.
Ask a first or second century Christian convert when Jesus suffered and died he’d answer ” Under Pontius Pilate,” which is nothing less than a concrete marker for the historicity of the Christian faith.
Definitive date equals historical person, which is all the more important when that person is God.