Heidelcast 195: What Must A Christian Believe? (12) On Christ’s Descent Into Hell

In our survey of the rule of faith, i.e., the Apostles’ Creed, we have reached the fourth article: “suffered under Pontius, Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.” In this episode we focus on the last clause, “he descended into hell” (descendit ad inferos). This is an important question that has been much discussed in the history of the church. 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. How did this clause come to be in the Rule of Faith or the Apostles’ Creed, when did it appear, what did it mean originally, what did it come to signify and what did the Reformed Churches do with it? We will address those historical questions as well as looking at the primary text of Scripture to which people have appealed to support the doctrine that, after he died but before he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to the place of the dead, namely 1 Peter 3:18–20. When we look at the history of the “descent” clause and the grammar of 1 Peter 3:19 we will see that Scripture teaches us an important truth about the continuity of the covenant of grace and the creed meant to teach us something important about Jesus’ death but that neither intended to teach us anything about Jesus going to the place of the dead. As always see the show notes for more on these topics.



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Show Notes

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  1. Westminster Larger Catechism has a nice summary:
    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.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate the historical sketch of the Descent clause origins in comparison to the earlier forms of the rule of faith. I’m wondering, are there any hints of the clause surrounding either Nicaea 325 or Constantinople in 381? Quite curious that it does not appear in such a major creedal formulation of the church, as we have it. Thank you.

    • Hi Charles,

      The Nicene Creed was adopted in AD 325. The descent clause only on the verge of being read sequentially, chronologically rather than as a synonym for buried. In that case, when Nicea said buried they covered the same ground. The battle at Constantinople was to defend the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit and thus they did not go back and revise the earlier work substantially. It does suggest that the notion of going to the place of the dead/dead ones wasn’t perhaps so universal yet.

      • It is interesting that Nicaea felt no need to make “buried” a sequential matter, to divide up what occurred (though it carried weight). Buried was good to define orthodoxy at that point. Thank you for your work.

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