December 08, 2003
The descent

Jennifer posted recently about the Apostle's Creed, which, coincidentally, has been the subject of some contention in my Bible study group lately. It's recited as part of the Lutheran liturgy, but one woman says she keeps silent during the "he descended into hell" part, because she doesn't believe it.

Why not? She heard some radio preacher say that Jesus couldn't have descended into hell after his crucifixion, because in Luke 23:49 he tells the thief next to him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Now, that struck me as the sort of hyperliteralist reading that leads to trouble. Where Jesus was headed was clearly not the point of the story, the Gospels vary wildly on what Jesus said on the cross generally, and a thousand years is like a day to God anyway. But really, I had no idea what the origin of the belief in his descending into hell was, and neither did the pastor.

I was hoping, actually, that I could track down that book that Jennifer refers to, but then I realized it was about the Nicene Creed, which doesn't have that line. So I did what I always do when in a theological quandary: write to Telford. He answered:

Some churches have omitted "he descended into hell" from their recitals of the creed. A better translation (common now in some mainline circles) is "he descended to the dead," i.e., the grave. That would then parallel the "he was buried" line in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 and become less contentious a claim. Since I think the line from the creed probably derives from the verse in 1 Cor., I think translating it "the dead" is a responsible thing to do.

To support the idea that Jesus was in hell (meaning the place of afterlife for those separated from God) between crucifixion and resurrection, 1 Peter 3 is commonly cited -- "he went and preached to the spirits in prison" -- but those spirits are the people who waited around while Noah built the ark. It's a complex image in that passage and the line about preaching to the spirits in prison serves a different main point than where Jesus was between Friday and Sunday, so people increasingly consider such questions speculative.

I assume that the original word being translated was "Hades," which is not quite the same thing as hell. At the time the Apostle's Creed came about, I don't know that there was a full-blown Dantean conception of the afterlife anyway. My pastor pointed out that creeds tend to be formulated in response to doctrinal disputes; the Athanasian Creed, for instance, was clearly meant to clear up that Trinitarian stuff. Others would know this better than me, but I can't help wondering if the descended-into-hell line was meant to emphasize that Jesus died just like a regular person, to counter Gnostics and other dissidents who thought Jesus somehow "rose above" his own crucifixion even while it was happening. That might also address Marvin's point on Jennifer's post that all it says about Jesus' life was that he "suffered"; maybe it's trying to counter any idea that he was somehow beyond suffering.

But this is all complete speculation on my part. If anybody out there knows more about this, I'm all ears.

Posted by Camassia at December 08, 2003 06:25 PM | TrackBack

This is from a different book I just pulled off my shelf - "The Faith We Confess" by Lochman. This one is on the Apostle's Creed.

"The work of Christ concerns the whole of humanity...It is not only Jesus' contemporaries who benefit by his death, nor even only those who live and have lived since his birth, but also those who died before Christ was human being is hopelessly excluded from, much less cast beyond, the pale of his salvation...Christ descended into the deepest dungeons of our godlessness and hopelessness. Nowhere in heaven or on earth or even in what is called hell are we without Christ." Then he quotes Romans 14:9, which is "For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living."

Posted by: Jennifer on December 8, 2003 07:16 PM

This is hardly authoritative, but Dante certainly wrote the Inferno from the view that Christ literally descended into Hell. He threw down at least one of the gates of Dis (the capital city of Hell) and He took various righteous pagans (Virgil, Trajan, et al.) with Him to Heaven.

I have no idea whether this view represents orthodox Catholic theology today.

Posted by: Tom T. on December 8, 2003 09:07 PM

I was going through that as I'm thinking about Catholic Confirmation, and a realised we always say the Nicene Creed at mass, which makes no mention of this hell thing...

The heaven today thing? I always wonder about that, because time can't really exist in heaven if God is so beyond that... It just gets too complicated, and trying to apply earthly concepts to the non-earthly just really throws it... I'm sure my no-time in heaven thing is just another human concept restriction, and I dont think thats how that really works. Anyways...

There's currently a big question mark next to "He Descended into Hell" and a note for Bible Study this week...

Its a wierd concept, because I think, with the ideas planted in the back of my mind, I picture like almost the premillenialist stereotype of the 2nd coming, with Jesus all shiney and just taking everything out and being all powerful-like and etc... Which, it would seem, isn't quite the right scenario since theres sin, evil, etc... What happened? And how did we just decide he descended into hell? From all I remember, it just says he died, and then he came back 3 days later.

WWJD: What was Jesus Doing?

Posted by: Justine on December 8, 2003 10:21 PM

I'm with Telf in seeing this line as meaning "he descended to the dead," and with you in seeing it as meant to emphasize his humanity. As I see it, a whole chunk of the creed is meant to underline the fact that Jesus really was human, not pseudo-human. Born, suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried - descended into hell (taking hell as Hades/Sheol, or the place of the dead) goes with all that precedes it.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on December 8, 2003 10:37 PM

The descent of Christ into Hell is known to Christian doctrine as "the Harrowing of Hell". He went into to Hell to free the righteous souls that had been held captive there since the beginning of time.
This makes sense, I guess, but it probably raises other questions...

Posted by: Rob on December 9, 2003 06:34 AM

A brief but informative discussion of "He descended into hell" is here.

Posted by: Tom on December 9, 2003 07:27 AM

A) Robert Frost has a cool poem in which people want to take "descended into Hades" out of the creed! "The Black Cottage", published in 1915.

I guess in general it's about "truths being in and out of favour", and features people who have canonical texts that don't say what they want them to say, and want to edit them. Also in the poem, the Declaration of Independence saying all men are created equal: "What did he mean? Of course the easy way/Is to decide it simply isn’t true."

B) Here's the Catechism of the Catholic Church on
"Christ Decended into Hell":

It seems to me to say both that Jesus _really_ died and that going into the realm of the dead completes his saving work - now he is lord of the living and the dead.

Posted by: john hinchcliffe on December 9, 2003 07:31 AM

Here's what I discovered, going back to the original Greek (assuming the Greek is the original). The greek word translated as "Hell" is κατώτατα ("katotata"), which simply means "downward" or "lower", and is apparently meant to coincide with the only appearance of the same word in the NT, in Ephesians 4:9 "What does 'he ascended' mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? (italics added)" Here the NIV translates "katotata" as "lower earthly regions" and is simply meant, from my reading, to imply that as high as Christ ascended after his death, equally low did he descend among us while living. If that's the case (which seems likely), then the line in the Apostle's Creed may be the expression of some imaginitive Christology based on a misunderstanding of Paul. If we accept the Latin version as original, then "inferna" properly translates into Hell more or less as we perceive it. There's no scriptural basis for this, but who knows?

Either way, we should be forgiving to the members of the early church: we've had two thousand years of accumulated wisdom to bring to bear on Pauline writings and Christ's teachings. Those in the early church did the best they could with what they had.

Posted by: Matthias on December 9, 2003 07:52 AM

Wow, I get up in the morning and the place is jumping! Thanks for the responses, all.

I did know that the literal descent into hell was accepted Catholic doctrine -- in fact, Tom K. mentioned the 'harrowing of hell' in the crucifixion discussion way back when. But saying that something is Catholic doctrine won't cut much ice with a bunch of Lutherans, so I'm more interested in where the idea came from.

Matthias, that's really interesting about the original Greek word -- I'd just assumed it was Hades, since it's referred to a few times in the NT. The original wording appears to have been even vaguer. I'm not sure how the 2,000 years of wisdom really helps us here though. I mean, we've learned a lot about the natural world, the origin of life etc., but I'm not sure how we can say our knowledge of the afterlife has advanced. And the ancient folk may have had the advantage of being closer to the actual events, and having memories of Jesus and writings that we no longer have, as Bill Allison pointed out.

I don't really have a strong opinion about this one way or the other. On the one hand, the whole concept of hell in the Dantean sense really appalls me, so I would prefer to think it isn't there for Jesus to go to. I gather Telford's resistance comes from the fact that he believes in soul sleep, so he's inclined to believe there wasn't really a place where dead souls were hanging out.

But if there is a place for departed souls, whether hell or the more neutral Hades/Sheol, I don't see the problem with Jesus going there. Actually, I find it a really appealing idea, for the reasons described in Jennifer's Lochner quote. If Jesus' salvation is really for all humanity, I don't see why you should be excluded just because you were unlucky enough to live and die before he came along. And symbolically, the idea of him reaching to people in deepest despair -- their personal hells -- makes him seem like a real savior.

Posted by: Camassia on December 9, 2003 10:01 AM

It's worth noting that the oldest versions of the Creed (in the "Old Roman Form") didn't mention the whole "descended into Hell" thing.

From another standpoint, and to be something of a you-know-who's advocate, it's also possible that the idea that Jesus descended into hell ("Hades," etc.) is either a remnant of or a bone thrown to pagans.

The idea of a deity descending into the underworld to save a soul/souls trapped within is found in almost every mystery tradition in Western culture, from Inanna in Sumerian mythology, to Osiris/Isis, to Orpheus, to the Eleusinian mysteries-- these myths all reflect the idea that a deity dies and descends to "Hades" in order to save someone. The difference seems to be that whereas these other deities went into Hades to save individuals (Tammuz, Eurydice, Persephone, etc.), whereas Jesus is said to have descended into Hades as part of his salvation of man in general. The authors of the Apostles Creed could very well have been writing to a pagan audience, saying, in effect, "look, your gods descend into the underworld to save one or two people, but Jesus, the true Son of God, descends into the underworld in the exact same way in order to save *you*."

Personally, I don't think the Apostle's Creed was written to refute "the Gnostics," since there were no Gnostics per se. Many so-called "gnostic" groups would have agreed with the tenets of the Creed 100%. I think it more likely that the Creed was written to answer the Docetists or

Posted by: J. Puma on December 9, 2003 10:27 AM

oops-- con't

Docetists and some very specific "Gnostic" teachers such as Marcion and the Valentinians.

Posted by: J. Puma on December 9, 2003 10:33 AM
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