Q: In the prayer the Apostles’ Creed, why does it say Jesus “descended into hell” after he was crucified, died and was buried? Some believe that hell is a place where a person will go when he or she sins against God, so why do we say in the Apostles’ Creed that he descended into hell until the third day and then rose again? I know you are not of the Christian faith but I think you can find out, or maybe know the answer for me.
— J from Miller Place, via email
A: The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest attempts to list the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. Such a list is called a creed, and creeds were important for Christianity in a way they never were in Judaism. This is because the traditional definition of a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother. Blood — not belief — defined the religion out of which Christianity emerged. However, when the early church abandoned Jewish law and shaped itself into a proselytizing faith, people needed to know what they were signing on for when they became Christians. Creeds provided the answer. If you believed the 12 beliefs listed in the Apostles’ Creed you were Christian, and this creed, which was formalized by the end of the fourth century, was used at baptisms and in prayer services to formalize and fix Christian belief.
Now on to your very interesting question.
This is how the Apostles’ Creed begins:
“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s 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 to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
So the belief you are questioning is the belief that sometime between his death and his resurrection Jesus descended into hell (Latin: descendit ad inferos), or the world of the dead or however it was known back then. The theological problems with this belief are numerous. Jesus had already said on the cross, “It is finished.” (John 19:30). So if his mission was completed with his death, what was he doing immediately descending into hell after his death? Why did he not do so before or since? Hell is the absolute last place we would expect to find Jesus after his death and before his resurrection.
Christian theologians have had difficulty explaining the phrase “descendit ad inferos” for years. In fact this phrase does not appear in the Nicene Creed. Some say it is a reference to the passage in 1 Peter 3:18-20, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison which sometime were disobedient. . .” Or perhaps Acts 2:31, “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.”
Augustine and Aquinas believed that Jesus actually descended into hell. Martin Luther believed it, but could not explain it, and John Calvin thought the whole story was just symbolic for Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The theologian Robert Mounce thought that this belief and its textual foundation in 1 Peter 3 “are widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament.” So what do you want from a poor old rabbi?
My personal take on this disputed and unclear belief is that it shows us precisely the moment when Christianity split with its roots in the Hebrew Bible — where death is the end of us and where there is no heaven or hell, just a place called Sheol, which is a universal gathering place for the dead. With the new belief that was common to both rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity, the soul survives the death of the body and continues its journey in heaven or hell. For Judaism resurrection is possible but only at the end of days. For Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus was the end of days. “Descendit ad inferos” is the belief that, for Jesus, death was not the end of his journey but only its most portentous beginning. A new faith had been born.