Jesus’ Descent into Hell

Though Calvin recognized that the phrase “he descended into hell” in the Apostle’s Creed was “once not so much used in the churches,” (Institutes, 2.16.8) he believed that it was an appropriate and necessary phrase. However, he comes short of actually saying that Jesus descended into hell. He says “it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment.” (Institutes, 2.16.10) This could be understood to be in agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44 which places Jesus’ experience of hell on the cross, not in the grave. In the Institutes Calvin is sufficiently vague in discussing the order of the events of Jesus’ death so that interpretation remains a possibility: “Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then [the Creed] appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God.”

Instead, I believe that it is better to simply omit the phrase from the Creed since a) it is not Biblical and b) it is missing from the earliest forms of the Creed. I think Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology may be on to something when he points out that the phrase originally was understood to mean that Jesus descended into the grave and that when various versions of the Creed were put together we wound up with the unfortunate situation of having the synonymous phrases “buried” and “descended into hell” side by side in the Creed. This required a redefinition of the later as the church struggled to keep the various versions intact while creating a standard text.

Here are some texts adduced to support Jesus’ descent into hell:

1 Peter 3:19-20 – The idea is that Jesus descended to hell to preach to those who died before he came. However, it may be better to understand that Jesus, through Noah, preached to those who were disobedient while Noah built the ark and those people are now in prison because they did not listen to Jesus. The problem with taking this to mean all who died before Christ is that the scope of this text is really only those who in Noah’s day.

Ephesians 4:9-10 – Hell does not seem to be in sight in this verse at all. There are a few different interpretations that are more viable. It could be that Jesus descended, not to hell but to the grave. Jesus descended into the abode of the dead (Sheol in the OT) and as he rose from the dead he lead the elect dead to heaven. This need not be taken chronologically but might be logically. Elsewhere Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18).

Another view is that Jesus descended not in to hell but simply descended to the earth. The “lower parts” is meant to indicate that he really did come to earth, not to the high and lofty position but that he came as a poor and humble man. What this interpretation has in mind is the phrase from Eph 4:8 that “he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Here Jesus came to earth, completed his ministry and ascended to heaven. In that work he won a people to himself and gives spiritual gifts to them. That is the gift of salvation as well as spiritual gifts.

These other interpretations weaken the Biblical data that might support Jesus descent into hell. Couple that with Jesus’ own statement from the cross that the thief crucified next to him that “this day” he would be with him in paradise and that he said “it is finished” and we see no need for him to descend into hell for three days at all.

Print This Post Print This Post


  • I completely agree. After exegeting 1Pe 3, it’s hard not to roll my eyes every time we hit that line in the creed (not helped by my wife poking me in the ribs). So, let’s call a council and … well, you know … undo it.

  • Growing up Catholic, the Apostles’ Creed at every mass I went to said “He descended to the dead,” which I assume referred to Sheol.

  • Really Paulo? That’s interesting because I grew up Roman Catholic too and we used to recite the Nicean Creed. The first time I heard the Apostle’s Creed was at the Stations of the Cross and when we got to “descended into hell” I was flabergasted. I couldn’t believe we said that.

  • Excellent post! I’ve been wondering about just this questions recently. Our new church says the apostle’s creed, which I appreciate. The version we say has “he descended into hell”, but footnotes it interpretively with “making full atonement for sin”.

  • David, you really need to take a look at Grudem’s chapter on this. He deals with the history of the Creed and how the different versions came together. Fascinating read.

  • In his Sys. Theo.?

  • Yea, chapter 27 I think.

  • It’s in the 1 Peter commentary he did – in the Appendix. (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – ISBN 0-85111-886-0). And I concur – a fascinating and well argued read.

    The fact that we now even seem to be singing this (“You’re the Lion of Judah”) is getting even more concerning. People seem to be quite happy with this phrase in the last verse, and yet it’s wrong! And as we remember songs better than just words, it’s rolling round in people’s heads.

    Call me a pedant, but we should change the line in this song to read “Who descended to death, yet was raised ….”.

  • I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

    Hell does not mean ‘the place of eternal punishment’ in the creed. It means ‘Hades’, the place of the dead.

    In the Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell) icons, Christ is depicted as leading all humanity out of Hell. Now, shall we assume that this meant all humanity was in the place of eternal torment and Christ has rescued all humanity from eternal torment, or rather that all humanity was subject to death and that Christ has become the firstborn among the dead, the first resurrection in the general resurrection?

  • Hey Matt. The big deal is that “hell” and “Hades” in the modern mind mean the place of eternal suffering. So for us to say the creed in the current form would lead people to a misunderstanding. Something needs to be done.

    Also, as I’ve said, the original versions of the creed had either that Jesus died or he descended into hades but not both. The creed was not established by a council (as far as I know) but was edited together. So why not go with the original version of the creed? That’s what we mean by it anyway right?

    Finally, I know you’re Eastern Orthodox but even you will admit that the icons are not inspired. Scripture is. Let’s let Scripture tell us about these things.

  • I suppose in a sense I agree that an icon is not ‘inspired’ in that it is not an original source of doctrine that is dogmatically and incontrovertibly binding on the believer’s conscience. If we’re using ‘sola’ criteria, that is.

    On the other hand, icons are pictoral representations of the Church’s dogmatic theology, which most certainly is inspired.

    My point is that the teaching of the historic church has been that Christ descended to the DEAD and there overthrew Death, and that this is what is meant by ‘hell’. I talked about the icon to prove it.

    The Apostles’ Creed did not appear in any council. It grew up rather organically, as a tool for catechesis of those pursuing baptism.

Join the Discussion

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>