What does the Apostles' Creed mean that Jesus descended into hell?

Author:  We Are Reformed
Date: December 7, 2021

The Apostles' Creed originated in response partly due to a distortion of Apostolic teachings that were present in some communities, however the creed itself was not written by the Apostles but is a summary of their teachings.

The phrase within the creed, "descended into hell", has certainly caused quite a bit of controversy. When we look at the history of this creed we see that the earliest this phrase was found within the Apostles' Creed is sometime around the fourth century. However there's ample historical evidence to indicate that the Apostles' Creed actually is derived from an earlier creed, the Old Roman Creed.

The text of the Old Roman Creed is as follows, with the last phrase (included by Marcellus of Ancyra but omitted by Tyrannius Rufinus) in brackets :

I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended into heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence he will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh,
[life everlasting].

J.N.D. Kelly, Creeds, p102

The two creeds are nearly identical, so it's clear that the Apostles' Creed is an expansion upon the Old Roman Creed, which does not include the controversial phrase.

However even with it's inclusion in the Apostles' Creed, it appears it was first mentioned by Rufinus sometime in the late fourth century and does not appear again in the creed until sometime around AD 650. Even Rufinus himself notes that the phrase was not only not within the version found within the Roman Catholic church (1) , but that he did not believe that Christ literally descended into hell but rather the phrase meant "He was buried". This understanding is also conveyed in Question 50 of the Westminster Larger Catechism (2).

So while the Apostles' Creed contains the phrase, He descended into hell, it's largely agreed that Christ did not literally descend into hell and that a more appropriate translation from the Greek into English should be: "He descended into the grave" or "He descended to the dead".

Furthermore it is also the common understanding that the descent is in reference to Christ's descent to the same place as the departed Saints (Abraham, etc ) who had fallen asleep before His arrival. It should be noted that the place of the departed Saints (prior to Christ's resurrection) is not Hell, the final place of judgement and punishment for those who are not His, but rather it is simply referred to as the place of the departed.

It should also be noted that at no point does scripture ever state or infer that Christ descended into Hell.

  1. https://www.amazon.com/Nicene-Post-Nicene-Fathers-Theodoret-Historical/dp/160206511X []
  2. Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
    A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried,[200] and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day;[201] which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell. []
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