Thursday, January 16, 2014

"he descended to the dead / hell"

Last night at our Christianity Explained course we got onto this clause of The Apostles' Creed.

Here are some notes I wrote on the subject in 2009.

“he descended to hell / the dead”

The phrase “he descended into hell” is not found in the earliest known versions of the Apostles’ Creed. It first appeared in AD 390 when it was understood to mean simply that Christ really died and was buried. The Greek form of the creed has the word “hades” which can mean the grave / place of the dead not just hell. The phrase reappeared referring to hell in AD 650.

We may say that Christ suffered hell on the cross as he bore the punishment for sin, though that does not seem to be the meaning in the Apostles’ creed (because of the word “descended” and because it is placed after Jesus’ burial).

Even if Jesus did go to hell after his death (which I don’t think he did!) we’d certainly want to say that he was just visiting! He finished his saving work on the cross (Jn 19:30). Hell could have no claim on the sinless Son of God. It is best to think that when Jesus died his Spirit went directly to be with his Father in Paradise (Lk 23:43, 46). Heb 9:24-26 speaks of Jesus entering heaven on our behalf, rather than hell. After his death Jesus’ body remained in the grave while his spirit was in heaven and then on Easter Sunday his body and soul were reunited at his resurrection (as ours will be on the great final day).

Some people have found support for the idea that Jesus descended into hell in Acts 2:27 (KJV/AV has “hell” for the Greek hades, OT sheol, grave / death), Rm 10:6-7 (abyss, depths or grave is a better translation here, though Paul is saying we should not ask that question!), Eph 4:8-9 (though this verse is probably speaking of Jesus coming to earth not going to hell) and 1 Pt 4:6 (though the dead here seems to mean those who were alive but are now dead, as the NIV takes it). It is probably best to think that 1 Pt 3:18-20 refers to Christ speaking (by the Spirit) through the preaching of Noah to the people of Noah’s day when they were alive, who are now spirits in prison in hell (see also 1 Pt 1:11; 2 Pt 2:5) though some think that Christ did go to hell and proclaim his victory to the fallen angels / demons (cf. ? the sons of God of Gen 6:1-4).

When we say the Apostles’ Creed, it is preferable to say that Jesus descended to the dead rather than to hell.

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