Why Do We Confess "He Descended Into Hell"?

The Apostles’ Creed (which was not actually written by the Apostles) began to develop as part of the catechesis (basic Christian instruction) in the Roman church late in the 2nd century (c. 150-80). One of the clauses of the creed that has caused questions is that which reads: “he descended into hell.” It is held in some traditions that by this Christians are confessing that our Lord, after his death, went to the place of the dead. It has been understood figuratively, however, by the Reformed churches to refer to Christ’s suffering. So Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism interpreted this clause.

Early on it appears that the “descendit” (he descended) clause was used interchangeably with “sepultus” (buried) and was added in place of “was buried” so that they had the same meaning as late as the late 4th century. By 570 the received form of the Creed included both “he was buried” and “he descended into hell.” By that time, however, “descendit” was no longer being used to mean “buried,” but temporally and sequentially to mean “he went to the place of the dead” (in the reading, “descendit ad inferos“). As Charles E Hill has shown, there is a link between the rise of this notion and Greek ideas about the inherent evil of the material. See Charles E. Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity.

Since before the 7th century it has been widely held that Christ went either to the the place of the dead or to the dead ones to announce victory/preach the gospel (which view Augustine rejected as heretical), and the Anglican/Lutheran view is that he went to conquer Satan and deliver the dead from hell. David Scaer defends the confessional Lutheran view of the descendit. Reformed exegesis of 1 Peter 3:18ff rejects such a possibility. We generally interpret 1 Peter 3 to teach that Christ, through God the Spirit, preached through Noah to Noah’s contemporaries.

My own view is that we can retain and our re-interpretation of it, but we should admit that the original sense was merely “buried.” Given our place in history, it might be possible now to revert to an earlier form and omit the descendit clause in favor of sepultus. Arguably, however, we would not be substantially altering a catholic creed as much as removing medieval accretions from it thus making it less Roman and more catholic.

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