He descended into Hell.

(This is part eight of a multi-entry blog series exploring the Apostles’ Creed.)

This entry examines a line of the Apostles’ Creed that has troubled Christians for years:

“He descended into hell.”

This entry is going to be a little different than all the others before it. Why do I say that this verse has troubled Christians? Well…. it’s not Biblical! In fact, it could easily be considered counter-Biblical. In Luke 23:43, while dying on the cross, Jesus says to one of the thieves next to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus pretty clearly states three things in this statement:

  1. The thief will be in Paradise.
  2. Jesus will be with him.
  3. It’s going to happen that very day!

Also, Jesus says in John 19:30, “It is finished.” Which implies that Jesus did not need to suffer further by going to hell. Finally, when Jesus dies in Luke 23:46, He says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus is very clearly going to join His Father in Heaven at this point.

We quickly see that there is very little allowance for Jesus to go to hell. Some could argue that Jesus became omnipresent and was able to go to Hell and Heaven at the same time. Dr. Wayne Grudem very strongly opposes this line of the creed in an article that originally appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 34, called “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea For Following Scripture Instead Of The Apostles’ Creed” (if you’d like to read the entire article, it’s available here). I’ll just share a couple quotes that I found particularly helpful concerning the development of this line of the Apostles’ Creed:

  • the Apostles’ Creed was not written or approved by a single Church council at one specific time. Rather, it gradually took shape from about A.D. 200 to 750.
  • until A.D. 650 no version of the Creed included this phrase with the intention of saying that Christ “descended into hell.” The only version to include the phrase before 650 gives it a different meaning. [It meant simply that he went into the grave.]

Dr. Grudem’s article concludes with this: “Unlike every other phrase in the Creed, it represents not some major doctrine on which all Christians agree but rather a statement about which most Christians seem to disagree. It is at best confusing and in most cases misleading for modern Christians. My own judgment is that there would be all gain and no loss if it were dropped from the Creed once for all.”

I know what you’re thinking at this point, “But hey, weren’t we going to be looking at major doctrinal sections that all Christians agree on? Did you say this was all upper-tier stuff in the Creed?” And perhaps more importantly, “What do we do with that? Does it even matter?”

I think this shows us two important things.

First and foremost, this shows us that over a long enough span of time, false teachings can, like a little bit of yeast in a batch of dough, spread and become pervasive. The Apostles’ Creed developed over a long span of time:  about 550 years! That’s longer than the United States of America has even existed! That is a long, long time. Over time, things can creep in to a church that are simply false; then people just cling to false doctrine because, like a loyal pet, it’s always been there as long as they can remember.

Second, this shows us that we must examine everything in light of Scripture; even something that we take for granted like the Apostles’ Creed. We must always listen and look. First you listen to those around you in teaching positions and then compare what they teach you to what the Bible says; do they match up? Listen and look!