The Apostles’ Creed creates a lot of discomfort with a little clause that is present in its lines of affirmations. This clause is the phrase “He descended into hell” and refers to Jesus. Some churches take this as a metaphor or avoid the topic. Some go so far to even omit the phrase from the creed. The claim for this omission of it is that it is not biblical, and, therefore, cannot be true. However, I will prove with logic and scripture that you have to say Jesus descended into to hell to have orthodox Christology and soteriology and it should not be omitted or taken as a metaphor for Jesus’s suffering.

Before I begin, I want you to see the apostle’s creed and the phrase for yourself.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator 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, died, and was buried.

He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;

He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Amen.

Now to start my explanation, the word “hell” in the Apostles Creed is actually the Hebrew word “Sheol.” In Greek the word is translated into “hades.” They are the exact same thing in that the people there do not have any vision of God[1]. Therefore, to proceed in explaining the necessity of statement “he descended into hell,” it is essential that one understands Jewish culture, which should be an inherent concept that one should understand when reading the Old Testament to read it correctly. Not understanding Jewish culture may be a flaw with some church’s reading of scripture and why they omit the phrase from the creed. Anyone of any measure of scholarship and knowledge should use knowledge of Jewish culture in conjunction when reading the Old Testament.  In the beginning, the Jews, at first, did not seem to have a good concept of an afterlife. The afterlife in Jewish culture at the time did not relate anything of joy and happiness. In the book of Psalms there are references to this place called Sheol.[2] Psalm 8:5 states: “The cords of Sheol surrounded me; the snares of death confronted me.” This scripture verse states that the act of dying is different from Sheol. There is the concept of Sheol and there is the concept of death in the Jewish culture at the time. Psalm 6:6 says, “For in death there is no remembrance of you. Who praises you in Sheol?” This states that death is what leads a person into Sheol. It shows this by the order in how death is mentioned first. Numbers 16:30 says, “But if the Lord brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the Lord.” Jewish tradition considered Sheol to be beneath the earth. Numbers 16:30 reflects this view that Sheol was beneath the earth. It also uses the word “descend” just like the Apostle’s Creed does. It is important to mention that it wasn’t until the book of Daniel that the idea of the resurrection is first mentioned.[3]  The righteous and the non-righteous did not have the same fate though in this concept of the afterlife. The righteous were held in Abraham’s Bosom, and these are the people Christ came to save from within Sheol.[4] Second temple Judaism had an eschatology that developed throughout the past and culminated into this eschatology.[5]

With establishing the existence of Sheol and how it is valid to the Jewish culture at the time, the idea of liberation for those souls by the death of Jesus and his descent is made to be more probable than not when one considers Jesus as the savior of all. Psalm 49:15-16 mentions the redemption of the just souls from Sheol. It says:

This is the way of those who trust in themselves, and the end of those who take pleasure in their own mouth. Like a herd of sheep they will be put into Sheol, and Death will shepherd them. Straight to the grave they descend, where their form will waste away, Sheol will be their palace. But God will redeem my life, will take me from the hand of Sheol.

It is presumed that David is writing this, and therefore we should consider the author to be a righteous and just person. The fact that the author knows that there will be redemption from Sheol for him suggests that the righteous will be redeemed. This also states that are awaiting Jesus’ descent into hell and that there is a place called Abraham’s bosom where the righteous go[6]. The purpose of the death of Jesus was to allow humanity to gain entrance into heaven. The people of humanity before Jesus did not have access to heaven and therefore there needed to be this place for the righteous. Therefore, those who came before Jesus were in another place and we have confirmed in Jewish tradition to be Sheol.  To deny Jesus’ descent becomes very problematic in that sense.

The concept of Jesus descending to Sheol when omitted or taken as a metaphor becomes very problematic. Not only does it become scripturally a problem because much of scripture is left with no meaning, but it creates a problem for one’s Christology and soteriology. When one denies that Jesus went Sheol, he is denying Jesus came to save all. He is, instead, asserting that Jesus came to save those people alive in his time period and afterward. This becomes problematic because the crucifixion can be seen as not totally fixing what humanity did in bringing death into the world. It’s claiming, essentially, that Jesus is not fully divine, and therefore, could not repay everything humanity owed.  On the other hand, one can also be asserting Jesus did not have enough humanity to be the repayment on behalf of humanity, nor was his humanity valid enough for him to go to Sheol just like other humans. This assertion would mean that man cannot be resurrected, due to the fact we can’t be the level of human Jesus was. Therefore, there would be no resurrection. You cannot say Jesus is fully human without saying He went to Sheol. Jesus faced death which was a design not part of God’s plan for creation, yet it was man’s fate. Therefore, Jesus in humanity should have also descended into Sheol because of the fact He was fully human. To deny the descent is to deny the resurrection is possible for humanity because it states Jesus is not fully human. The denial of the descent, at most, states Jesus is a mixture of Divine and human that make up this being of the Christ. This is idea of a mixture is condemned in some of the early creeds that came about within early Christianity. The mixture idea of divine and human would fall under the heresies by Apollinaris, Theodore of Mopsueste, or even Nestorius.

People object to Jesus’ descent into Sheol because they claim there is no narrative in gospels about the event. However, death is a solitary experience and two people cannot enter death together. Therefore, it is rather foolish to think an apostle could write about the account of Jesus going to Sheol.  However, it should not be misunderstood to be that the apostles did not know that Jesus was to descend into Sheol. It is revealed in the new testament Jesus was to descend into Sheol. There are New Testament references even if it is not a narrative of Jesus being in Sheol. Mathew 12: 40 says: “for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jews at the time believed Sheol was at the center of the earth. This verse corresponds with the place they knew Sheol was. The tomb Jesus’ body was put in was not at the center of the earth or under the earth. Matthew 12:40 could not possibly be referring to the tomb. Another aspect that further emphasizes the relation to Sheol with Matthew 12:40 is Jonah while in the belly of the whale uses a hyperbole to Sheol. This parallel further gives indication that Jesus descended into Sheol.[7] In the idea that Jesus rose from the dead is another example of a reference within the New Testament. The specific use of the word “rose” or “rise” is an indication of Sheol as well.[8] Jesus’ body was not placed at the center of earth, so it is wrong to say that he rose from the dead and to deny the descent into Sheol. In order for something to “rise” into life upon earth, it would have to have descended first. This descent gives the idea that there is a place below the earth and Jesus departed there because he had to “rise” from the dead. To deny the descent could be to deny the resurrection. To deny the resurrection becomes its own problem which unravels one’s Christology. The resurrection is arguably the most important event in Christendom.[9] Therefore as you can see scripturally it is an error to state that there is no scriptural evidence or to state that the clause in the Apostle’s creed is meant as a metaphor.

There is the a verse in 1st peter that Augustine talks, about but I find the passage too ambiguous and thus, have some doubts about what it is referring to and have not mentioned it for a reason. However, did you know when you go to the website biblegateway and select NASB translation and then type Sheol into the search 65 verses with that word come up? That is a big number and shows that it is not something that should be overlooked. In other translations, it is referred to it as Hades or as the realm of the dead. This little word is rooted in history and should not be ignored like it seems to be.

The lack of a straight forward narrative in the New Testament should not totally discount the concept in the Apostle’s Creed. The use of such an argument shows the lack of full knowledge of scripture within the Old Testament and an understanding of Jewish culture. Another reason this argument is invalid is because John 20:25 says, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” This verse states that not everything Jesus did was written in the bible. If everything was written down the bible would be much bigger than what we have today. It is a fallacy to believe that everything Jesus did was written down and contained within the bible. Therefore, one cannot cite that argument, especially because the argument proposed the idea of the Trinity would not stand up to that question. The Trinity is not specifically and straight forwardly mentioned in the bible.

In conclusion, the clause “descended into hell’ is an orthodox statement. It can be found in scripture and logically based on Jewish tradition is an event that took place. It is incorrect for the phrase to be omitted from the Apostles’ Creed or to be taken as a metaphor. Christology and soteriology would incompatible with scripture if the belief of the descent is not held. Without the belief of the descent Jesus cannot be named the savior of all. It leads to problems within ones theology and leaves a hole in Christianity itself. Therefore, it seems that one needs to say that Jesus descended into Hell in order to have orthodox Christology and to understand the salvific purpose Jesus came to fulfill.

References/footnotes:


[1] Catholic Church. 1994. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

[2] Boadt, Lawrence. 1984. Reading the Old Testament: an introduction. New York, N.Y.: Paulist Press. 216-217.

[3] Boadt, Lawrence. 1984. Reading the Old Testament: an introduction. New York, N.Y.: Paulist Press. 217.

[4] Catholic Church. 1994. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

[5] Levering, Matthew. 2012. Jesus and the Demise of Death : Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2012. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2015). 15.

[6] Catholic Church. 1994. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

[7] “Why Did Jesus Descend to Hell.” Catholic Answers. Accessed April 21, 2015. http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/why-did-christ-visit-hell-after-his-death-0.

[8] Matthew 28:7

[9] Ashwin-Siejkowski, Piotr. 2009. The Apostles’ Creed the Apostles’ Creed and its early Christian context. London: T & T Clark. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=601623. 63.

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