Should we Assent to the Descent?

Eric Hutchinson
Did Christ descend into hell?

With this question, as with so many others, much depends upon what one means by the words--in this case, much depends on the meaning of all three words, "descended," "into," and "hell." The question is felt most acutely when one recites and ponders the words of the Apostles' Creed: "Jesus Christ...who ...was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell."

We know, because Rufinus of Aquileia tells us, that the descendit was not found in the the Old Roman Creed professed by candidates for baptism, nor was it found in the Creed of the "Oriental Churches" (in Orientis Ecclesiis). It was, however, found in a handful of Arian pronouncements in the fourth century (and its substance was found elsewhere). (Interestingly, this means that still in the fourth century, and afterwards, various regional churches felt free to adapt aspects of the creed to suit their [often anti-heretical] purposes. There is a discussion to be had about these intriguing suggestions of regional diversity, but it cannot be pursued here.)

Today many associate the descendit with the "Harrowing of Hell" and the liberation of the righteous who had lived before the Advent of Christ--an idea sometimes resting in part on a questionable interpretation of two admittedly difficult passages in 1 Peter. 

The difficulty of the descendit is compounded by the erstwhile ambiguity of the English word "hell," which can be used indiscriminately for the place of the dead in general (Hades, Sheol) and the place of the damned in particular (Gehenna), and was so used at least in the time of King James (cf. Psalm 16:10). It has since become more commonly employed as signifying the place of eternal torment exclusively; this creates confusion in the modern recitation of the Creed, because we use a King James term that in common speech no longer has the flexibility it once did.

It is at this point that the ancient languages, and especially Greek, which does not suffer from the same ambiguity, can shed some light on the question.

In a pronouncement of an Arian council held at Sirmium in 359, there is no statement about Christ's "burial"; in its place, there is only the statement of His "descent": "And He went down to the subterranean regions, and ordered the things there--upon seeing whom the gates of Hades shuddered" (presumably referring to Matt. 16:18). This suggestive substitution of "descended" for "buried...descended" is found again in the Creed of Venantius Fortunatus in sixth-century Gaul (he in fact proceeds directly from "crucified" to "descended"). In most versions, however, both clauses were included in subsequent centuries. 

In any case, what is clear from these and other early uses, by the Arians as well as by the orthodox, is that "hell" as they were using it referred to the "abode of the dead," represented in the Old Testament by "Sheol," rather than the "abode of the damned, which is to say, "Gehenna."

From these observations we can see that, in the simple and unspecific form in which the clause is used in the Apostles' Creed (as opposed to speculative elaborations of it or its substance), those who employed such language were attempting to confess what they found in Scripture, in places such as Psalm 16:10, Psalm 30:3, 1 Cor. 15:55 (some early versions of which read "Hades" rather than "Death"), Eph. 4:9 (whose language the Greek text of the Creed echoes), and Rom. 10:7: that is to say, they were, in their own laconic way, confessing (that is, saying the same thing as) what the Scriptural witness indicates about there being a "descent" in some sense of Christ to Hades or the Abyss--an idea that is susceptible of a variety of interpretations, among which the Creed itself does not adjudicate; for only sustained and attentive reflection on that same Scriptural witness can fulfill that task. 

These observations, then, cannot and do not determine precisely what is meant when we recite this clause (and it is well known that there is diversity among the Reformed on this point), but they can at least help to set the parameters for what we do not mean while at the same time still rendering the language itself acceptable.

I close with H. B. Swete's pregnant conclusion to his chapter on the clause on which I have drawn above, from his short book The Apostles' Creed: Its Relation to Primitive Christianity, first published in 1894:

"The history is an instructive one. An article of the faith, which is neither Roman nor Eastern, has established itself in the Creed of Western Christendom through the influence of a remote Church represented by a Gallican prelate who had spent his early days in North-East Italy. It did not reach Gaul, as far as we can judge, till the end of the sixth century. But it came from one of the earliest forms of the baptismal Creed; it reflected an absolutely primitive belief: it is expressed in the phraseology of the early Latin Bible. Why should this clause be regarded with misgiving because of the accident of its Aquileian origin? Professor Harnack insists that 'the clause is too weak to maintain its ground beside the others, as equally independent and authoritative.' In what its weakness lies, the Professor fails to point out; to us it appears to possess in a very high degree the strength which comes from primitive simplicity and wise reserve. Each of the great Churches in ancient Christendom had its special contribution to bring to the fulness of Christian faith and life. It was the privilege of the Church of Aquileia to hand down to a remote age, free from legendary accretions, an Apostolic belief which affirms that the Incarnate Son consecrated by His presence the condition of departed souls." (pp. 62-3)