In the Apostles’ Creed It Says That Christ Descended Into Hell After His Death. What Does This Mean?

There is a certain discomfort for the modern mind by this phrase, and it is perhaps sharpened by the fact that the phrase does not appear in either the old Roman Creed, which preceded the final form of the Apostles’ Creed, or in the Nicene Creed which came later. It is generally agreed that this phrase is to be taken that Christ descended into the realm of the dead before his resurrection. Thus, some English versions of the creed use alternative terminology, such as, the Roman Catholic version which says, “He descended to the dead.”
The scriptural basis for the phrase is in several New Testament passages. 1 Peter 3:18-20 describes Christ as “preaching to the spirits in prison,” and later, Peter also says that Christ “preached to the dead” (1 Pe. 4:6). Supporting passages speak of Christ being in the “heart of the earth,” (Matthew 12:40) and of Christ descending to the “lower parts of the earth,” (Ephesians 4:9). Due to his resurrection, Christ was not “abandoned to hell,” (Acts 2:25-35), though Christ was in “the Abyss” prior to his resurrection (Romans 10:6-7). Many of the ante-Nicene fathers took these passages to mean that after his death Christ preached the gospel to those in hell so that no one who had died before the coming of Jesus would be deprived of hearing it. Both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus attribute this idea to the Old Testament itself, Justin to Jeremiah and Irenaeus to Isaiah. However, the exact passage in either of these Old Testament prophets is unknown except that Justin claimed the Jews had excised it from the text. In any case, if there is a textual tradition of the Old Testament with such a reference, it has not yet been discovered.

In the Reformation period, Luther taught that Christ descended into hell to show his victory over the devil, and he rejected the idea of a second chance for anyone who had been condemned during the Old Testament era or the notion that Christ may have in any way suffered the tortures of hell, even vicariously. Since that time, most Christians have been content to receive the phrase in its most basic interpretation, that is, that Christ descended into the realm of the dead.

Pastor Dan Lewis

February 1, 2014

Troy Christian Chapel
400 E. Long Lake Road
Troy, MI 48085

Phone: (248) 689-2046
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