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By the Rev. Canon Jeff Williams
Special to Virtueonline
August 16, 2018

In the Apostles Creed it says that Jesus "descended into Hell." What does this mean? Is this in the original Apostles' Creed? Does it reflect a Biblical doctrine?

This passage was probably added to later versions of the Creed, but it is true and valid. One of the earlier references to it is at Nice in 359 (Ecclesiastical History 2.37, MPG 67.280; H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 60.)

The confusion about this passage of the Creed today is due to the fact that many English translations translate three different words as "Hell," when in fact only one of these refers to what is commonly thought of among English speakers as "Hell," and the other two refer to something very different.

First, most English Bibles correctly translate the Greek "Gehenna" (Γεέννῃ) as "Hell," meaning the final place or state of torment of the damned. This is the same as the Lake of Fire mentioned in Rev. 20:14, etc. Christ refers to this frequently in His preaching.

Next, many English translations incorrectly translate the Greek word Hades (%Adhs) and the Hebrew equivalent Sheol (שאול) as "Hell" also, though these two words refer to the place of departed spirits, to which both righteous and unrighteous souls went in pre-Crucifixion times. There were formerly two sections or states in Hades.

One section or state of Hades was (and still is) a place of torment for the unsaved- a temporary Hell for the spirits of the unsaved awaiting the final judgment (much as in our court system a person awaits trial in the local county jail, and after he is sentenced, he is sent to a state penitentiary.) At the final judgment and the resurrection of the unsaved dead, the spirit (from Hades) is rejoined to the resurrected body and cast into the final Hell. Rev. 20:14, "And death [the resurrected body] and hell [Gr. Hades- i.e., the spirit, from Hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death."

The other section or state of Hades (no longer needed after the Resurrection) was Paradise for the saved, also referred to by Jesus as "Abraham's Bosom". This can be seen in Luke 16: 22-26: "And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in Hell [Gr. Hades] he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. . . Abraham said . . . now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence." (Some commentators refer to this account as a "parable." It should be noted that Jesus mentions specific names, and relates the account as though it actually happened; and the Bible nowhere says that this was a parable.)

Before the death of Christ on the cross, the servants of God had not had their sins paid for by the blood of Christ, so they were kept in Paradise, the pleasant part of Hades, until the atonement was completed.

The Old Testament blood sacrifices (the Patriarchal era altars, the Passover, the Jewish Temple sacrificial system, etc.) were a witness to and testimony of the believer's faith- that he was a sinner whose sins needed to be paid for, and that God would somehow accept these blood sacrifices to cover his sins. These blood sacrifices, though they provided a covering for sins until Christ was sacrificed as our perfect Passover, were only a temporary measure, and could never pay for sins permanently. Hebrews 10:4, "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins."

But once Christ died on the cross, the sins of the righteous dead were atoned for, fully paid for rather than just temporarily covered. Hebrews 10:10-18, ". . . we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all . . . [Christ] offered one sacrifice for sins for ever . . . For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified . . . where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin."

Since their sins were fully paid for by the death of Christ on the cross, the righteous who died before the Crucifixion could now be admitted to Heaven, and after His death Christ went to Hades to "preach to the souls" of the righteous dead, then lead them in a triumphal procession to Heaven.

The original Greek wording for "He descended into Hell" in the Apostles' Creed is κατελόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, and in Latin descendit ad inferos. The Greek τὰ κατώτατα ("the lowest") and the Latin inferos ("those below") may also be translated as "underworld", "netherworld", or as "abode of the dead". Thus, sometimes this phrase is translated as "descended to the dead." He triumphed over inferos, releasing Hell's captives, the righteous men and women of the time of the Old Testament.

Acts 2:27 and 2:31 declare in effect that Hades ("the place of the dead") could not hold the crucified Christ. 1 Peter 3:19--20 says that Jesus "went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah...."

1 Peter 4:6 says that the gospel was "preached also to them that are dead. . . " (KJV) / "proclaimed even to the dead..." (NRSV). ("εἰς τοῦτο γὰρ καὶ νεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη...") Some scholars think he preached only to the righteous dead before leading them up into Heaven; others think he preached to both sections of Hades, the saved and the unsaved, before taking the saved to Heaven. Yet other scholars do not think these things happened at all.

Ephesians 4:8--10: "When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men [probably a reference to the gifts of the Holy Spirit coming to us after the resurrection of Christ]. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things." (KJV) / "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men. What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the Heavens, in order to fill the whole universe." (NRSV) (διὸ λέγει, ἀναβὰς εἰς ὕψος ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν, ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις. τὸ δὲ ἀνέβη τί ἐστιν εἰ μὴ ὅτι καὶ κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα [μέρη] τῆς γῆς; ὁ καταβὰς αὐτός ἐστιν καὶ ὁ ἀναβὰς ὑπεράνω πάντων τῶν οὐρανῶν, ἵνα πληρώσῃ τὰ πάντα.)

"He led captivity captive" or "captives in his train" almost certainly refers to a common similar use of the words in that day to refer to a triumphal procession by a conquering hero, most likely referring to Christ's descent into the underworld to bring forth the Old Testament era saints out of Paradise and take them to Heaven with Him. This also is a reference to Psalm 68:18: "When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train . . ." (NIV) The parenthetical verses 9--10 of Ephesians are widely read as an exegetical gloss on the text. The word for "lower parts" (the comparative form: τὰ κατώτερα) is similar to the word used for "Hell" in the Greek version of the Apostles Creed (the superlative form: τὰ κατώτατα, English: "lowest [places]"). (Some theologians think that this passage refers instead to Jesus' burial, or to His humbling Himself in the Incarnation. I disagree.) Isaiah 24:21-22 also speaks of spirits in prison, reminiscent of Peter's account of a visitation to spirits in prison: "And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth. And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited."

Adding to the confusion over the word "Hell" in English translations of the Bible is the fact that in the Old Testament, sometimes the Old Testament word Sheol (= N.T. Hades) is incorrectly translated "the grave," including in the usually very accurate King James Version. This is because many translators of that era saw O.T. verses which said the righteous went to Sheol, and other verses which said the wicked went to Sheol. Not understanding (or, perhaps in some cases, not agreeing) that Sheol/Hades had two sections, they could not understand why both types of people went to the same place, so they gave up trying to explain it and, trying to be helpful, just translated Sheol [incorrectly] as "the grave" in many verses, contrary to all legitimate precedent.

The Old Testament states that Job and other righteous men went to Sheol when they died, as did David and the other psalmists.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church correctly states: "By the expression 'He descended into Hell', the Apostles' Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil 'who has the power of death' (Heb 2:14). In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened Heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him." (pp. 636-637)

The Formula of Concord (Lutheran confession) states, ". . . [Christ] descended to Hell [Hades] after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power." (Solid Declaration, Art. IX) Lutherans believe that Jesus went to Hell to celebrate his victory over Satan and to preach to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18-20), and did not suffer in Hell because his suffering ended when he said, "It is finished" (John 19:30); Christ's atonement for sin, according to this point of view, was over on the cross.

Calvin, on the other hand, said that "Christ's descent into Hell was necessary for Christians' atonement, because Christ did in fact endure the penalty for the sins of the redeemed." Institutes Of The Christian Religion, Parts 8-12.

Although there may be much that we do not understand fully in this life, let us be thankful to our risen Lord for doing so much for his people, including descending into Hell temporarily.

The Rev. Canon Jeff Williams is an associate priest/Canon at Holy Cross Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia led by Archbishop Foley Beach. He is also a practicing attorney

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