Descended into hell

Reading around in preparation for Good Friday I returned to this old chestnut debate – the phrase ‘he descended into hell’ which we used to say in the Apostles’ Creed using the book known as AAPB (An Australian Prayer Book). Our Sydney Diocese has produced a new prayer book and the Creed now reads: ‘he descended to the dead’.

The Scriptures use various words to speak about what happens after death. Hades, Sheol and Gehenna crop up in various ways. The ‘waiting place of the dead’ is Hades (Greek) and Sheol (Hebrew). Hell is the world Gehenna. This latter (Gehenna) refers to the place of punishment for the wicked which is the way it is used today. But Hades/Sheol simply refer to the place of departed spirits without any indication of weal or woe. It is this latter notion which is being conveyed in ‘descended to the dead’ in our new Prayer book format. The confusion increases with the Latin tradition of the Creed introducing new wording (inferos and infera, for you Latin scholars). Throw the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20 into the mix and there’s little wonder that the debate continues to simmer.

Graham Cole has a brief discussion in an appendix of his book ‘God the Peacemaker‘ (p 246). He notes the Reformed tradition usually follow’s Calvin who viewed the phrase as referring to ‘the final stage of Christ’s state of humiliation’. But Graham, who was my lecturer in Theology when I was at Moore College, goes on to note that in our liturgies it would be better to follow the earlier versions of the creed which omit the phrase. “Some silences are worth observing to this day.” (p 247). I have to admit that I found this conclusion a little unsettling – after all we voice it out loud pretty regularly when we stand and affirm the Apostles’ Creed in our gatherings. Should we change our Creed? I don’t believe so – and the conclusions of others who have built on Calvin provide the basis for my confidence.

Michael Bird has an excellent summary of the debate in his Evangelical Theology (p 490-93). Bird turns to a number of the key passages like Matthew 16:18, Acts 2:24 and Revelation 1:17-18 and notes that these texts highlight that ‘the descent is part of Jesus’s victory over death. That is, it’s not like there is some place hidden away which is beyond the reach of Christ. In short, Jesus is Lord of all! I do like his conclusion which captures the totality of the event and how the phrase points to the great achievement of the cross of Christ:

“When Christians confess that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’, they mean not only his full participation in death but also his victory over death and the announcement of his victory to those awaiting judgement. As the paschal troparion of the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates every Easter, ‘Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and graciously giving life to those in the grave.'” (Bird, p 493).

Marcus Loane, the former Archbishop of Sydney, also draws out the pastoral significance in his little book ‘Do you now believe?’

“This clause in the Creed sets out the reality of His manhood even in death. …’He bore our nature as living; He bore our nature as dead’ (Westcott). His death was both real and complete; He went where we must go. It is this fact that lends strength to Richard Baxter’s great and tender saying: ‘Christ leads me through no darker rooms than He went through before.’ (p 48).

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