Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

17 Jul 2023

The Descent of Christ

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Beyond doubt, the most hotly debated assertion of the Apostles’ Creed is the descent of Christ to “hell” or hades (ᾅδης/inferos/inferna). This line conjures images of Renaissance frescos and medieval ambiance. One wonders whether the tenet reflects apostolic teaching or was inserted wrongfully by later church councils. Three questions guide the investigation: 1) Does this clause belong in the Creed in the first place? 2) To what does it refer, and 3) where is it taught in Scripture?

In answer to the first question, I tentatively affirm the place of the descent of Christ in the Creed.[1] I admit up front that the textual criticism doesn’t look good.[2] The Creed emerged and crystallized between the years of AD 200–750. As with all ancient manuscripts, no two copies are a perfect match; furthermore, a standardized version didn’t emerge until the Received Text of Pirminius in AD 750. The Creed developed as a baptismal formula likely originating in the Western church. Chiefly it was used by catechumens as a public proclamation of personal faith upon baptism on Easter Eve. The Creed also proved useful as a regula fidei. A number of heresies plagued the early church, especially attacking the doctrines of the person and work of Christ, so the Creed served as a safeguard against false teaching. The earliest Latin and Greek versions do not include the article on Christ’s descent. As far as we can tell, Rufinus writing in AD 390 first attests to the article on the descent of Christ drawing from the formula used in Aquileia in northern Italy. Though the attestation of the descent is sparse in the early versions, it’s not completely absent, and it ultimately features in the Received Text. More convincing, I believe, is a clear strand of teaching in the Fathers affirming the descent of Christ. For example, Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, penned these words in his treatise Against Heresies circa AD 180.[3]

But the case was, that for three days he dwelled in the place where the dead were, as the prophet says concerning him: And the Lord remembered his dead saints who slept formerly in the land of the grave; and he descended to them, to rescue and save them” [a saying attributed to Jeremiah/ Ps 107:20]. And the Lord himself says, As Jonah remained three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth” [Matt 12:40]. Then also the apostle says, But when he ascended, what is it but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth” [Eph 4:9–10]. This, too, David says when prophesying about him, And you have delivered my soul from the realm of the dead” [Ps 16:10/Acts 2:27]… If, then, the Lord observed the law of the dead, that he might become the firstborn from among the dead [Col 1:18], and tarried until the third day in the lower parts of the earth…” [Rev 1:5].

Against Heresis, 5.31.1

A strand of tradition closely linked to the apostles interpreted Scripture in keeping with the descent of Christ as affirmed in the Creed. This tradition leads me to believe that the descent of Christ originated in apostolic teaching because they saw it in Scripture. That brings us to the second question. To what does the descent of Christ refer? The key to understanding the descent of Christ lies in recognizing that he descended into Hades/Sheol (ᾅδης, cf. Luke 16:23/שְׁאוֹל, cf. Ps 16:10), not “hell” (γέεννα, cf. Matt 5:29). A lexical study suggests these terms refer to distinct places. The NT appears to reserve the appellation γέεννα or “hell” for the place of final perdition (e.g., Matt 5:30; Mark 9:43; Lk 12:5), while the term ᾅδης or hades describes the netherworld or the place of departed spirits (e.g., Matt 16:18; Lk 16:23; Acts 2:27; Rev 1:18). John the Seer shows the distinction clearly in Revelation 20: “Death and Hades [ᾅδης] gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:13b–15, ESV). The place of ultimate, final perdition awaits a population until the verdict of the Great White Throne Judgment. Christ did not descend into the place of final perdition; he descended into the place of departed spirits or hades (ᾅδης), as affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed and alluded to in Acts 2:29–31. The third and final question to answer is, “What does Scripture say about the descent of Christ?” That question awaits a future post.

[1] For a good representation of the contrary opinion see Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture instead of the Apostles’ Creed,” JETS 34 (1991): 103. 

[2] Philip Schaff gives an extremely helpful chart mapping each tenet of the Creed and its appearance in extant copies cataloged by author and date of composition (The Creeds of Christendom: The Greek and Latin Creeds, vol. 2, 6th ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990] pp. 52–55). 

[3] Citation and observation provided by Michael Bird in What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), p. 147