He descended into hell – What?!

I was ambushed at lunch yesterday.

“What is up with the “He descended into hell” part of the Apostle’s Creed? What does that mean, and how come some churches say it and others don’t? Why don’t you write a blog on that?”

Well, alright then, it being Easter weekend and all… Here’s a round of what I call Coffee Cup Theology.

This is the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.

The “descended into hell” part is controversial, and has been debated for about 1,000 years. Remember that the Apostle’s Creed is a confession of faith (in this case it was a baptismal statement) that was developed around 350 AD and made an official around 750 AD. It is not a piece of scripture but a statement designed to clarify what the church believes.

So here’s my one cup of coffee commentary:

A literal translation of “descended into hell” is “went into the grave”. All the creed is saying is that Jesus was really dead. He was not an illusion. He was nailed to a post. He died. He had a real body, a corpse, that was placed in a tomb. He was not merely unconscious, the death of Jesus was not just a swoon or a coma, but death in every sense of the word. In the South we would say he was “deader than a door nail”… like really, truly dead. The reason that phrase was a part of the creed was to combat other heresies – unacceptable beliefs that Jesus wasn’t really dead.

Got that? So when you come to the “descended into hell” bit just say to yourself “He went down into the grave”. And you’ll know He was really, truly dead for your sins.

Who’s got time for a second cup of coffee?

Let me start by saying this – There is no place in scripture where it clearly says what Jesus was doing on Saturday of Easter weekend. He was dead, in the grave remember? He died on Friday and was resurrected on Sunday, the third day. So nothing is really said in scripture about what happened in between. You’ll have to ask Him when you get to heaven. Add it to your list of Unanswered Questions.

Today, as best I can figure out, the Catholic church has dropped the “descended into hell” line as have the Methodists. The Episcopalians/Anglicans have kept it and teach it in the catechism. I don’t know about the Presbyterians, and if you’re Baptist it’s possible you have no idea what I am talking about. LOL. (Tell me what you know, girlfriends!!)

However, there is a church tradition that on this occasion he took the souls of those who had died trusting in the promises made under the Old Covenant before Christ — Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, and many others — and brought them out of the realm of the dead who are waiting for resurrection and judgment and into heavenly glory. In the Episcopalian catechism (get out your Book of Common Prayer) the question is asked, “What do we mean when we say He descended to the dead?” The Answer: “We mean that he went to the departed and offered them also the benefits of redemption.”

This tradition is based on an interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20

18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

I have no idea what verse 19 really means. (Luckily it has no real impact on my life today!!)

I do know that it opens up many questions regarding what you believe about what happens between when you die and the resurrection at the Judgment Day. I can’t do three more cups of coffee today. I have Easter eggs to boil and color with my kids today. No eschatology – maybe another time.

Except one last interesting thought – this week as you read and hear the dialogue between Jesus and the thief on the cross remember that the spoken word has no punctuation. In Luke 23:43 did Jesus say,

“Truly I say to you – today you will be with me in paradise.” or
“Truly I say to you today – you will be with me in paradise.”

I had to throw that out there, just for fun!

It doesn’t really matter. What we know for sure is that we all gonna die one day and then there will be a resurrection and a judgment. You can be scared about that, or you can be excited about that… it all depends on what you do with Jesus and his teachings.

Jesus really did die on the cross and bore the full wrath of God that we deserved for being full of sin and our self-righteous, independent-living ways. The promise of Romans 10:9 is the same for all of us, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

“Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!”

Sing it this Easter weekend, and every day of your life! He is risen, hallelujah!

More reading for the curious:

3 thoughts on “He descended into hell – What?!

  1. Wow – thanks for researching this so promptly – good read, thanks! For the record Presbyterians say “descended into hell” …

    But now you have to continue with the punctuation comment regarding the words Christ spoke to the robber. Makes a difference and opens up a lot more questions for me!

    Another lunchtime ambush perhaps! You are a gifted writer – I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. I thought I’d share a thought that might even clarify one point. By-the-way I love your thoughts, too. Our mutual friend, Jaquie shared your wonderful blog with me.
    Here is the part I might be able to help with: “19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
    I have no idea what verse 19 really means. (Luckily it has no real impact on my life today!!)”

    King James Version: ” 18 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:
    19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
    20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”
    I have been taught and believe that there are many many many souls who have never heard of the Savior in this life. So in His infinite mercy vs 19 tells us that He will go to Paradise, a place before judgement, where good souls are and will teach those souls the gospel and show himself and let them make the choice we all have here, to believe or not believe in living the gospel. I have been taught that vs 19 is a great showing of a merciful plan that we all can participate in.

    Anyway, I hope that helps. Great thoughts. Great blog 🙂

    1. Hey Sherrillm! Welcome to my blog! I’m so glad that you not only found me, but bothered to research an issue and write back. You’re my kind of lady! In all the reading I did on that topic, the explanation that you offered was certainly one of the more prominent ones. (I decided not to tackle it in a blog post, that’s more of a dissertation topic – Ha ha.) Write again if something else catches your eye – I like the interaction!


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