Why does the ancient Christian creed say Jesus 'descended into hell'?


What do Christians say happened during [Jesus'] “descent into hell,” and do most denominations believe this happened?


This week, as every week, uncountable millions of Christians attending church will profess that Jesus Christ “was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead…”  So states the venerable Apostles’ Creed, which includes a cryptic “descent” phrase about the period between Good Friday and Eastern. Some modern rituals say Jesus “descended to the dead” instead of “hell.”

Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed moves directly from Jesus’ crucifixion and burial to his resurrection with no mention of a descent. Lisa’s full question pointed out this key difference between the two ancient creeds that have long dominated Christian worship services and catechisms.

The Apostles’ Creed is part of Catholicism’s baptism ritual and widely recited by Protestants. Though Eastern Orthodoxy uses only the Nicene Creed in worship it has affirmed Jesus’ descent since ancient times. The Apostles’ Creed developed from the Old Roman Creed of the late 2nd Century, which originally did not mention a descent. The earliest surviving texts with that phrase come from the Christian East in A.D. 359 and the Latin West in 404.

Analysts have said the descent is the creed’s “most controversial” tenet, and that no other phrase in it “has caused so much difficulty” or provoked such “long-standing, lively, and ultimately inconclusive discussion.” Christians agree that both creeds teach the reality of Jesus’ death but there’s debate on whether descent means something more and should be taken literally. Various biblical passages play into the discussion, especially 1 Peter 3:18-19, a difficult text that says Jesus was dead “in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison.”

In Catholic tradition, St. Augustine thought the 1 Peter statement is allegorical ...

Continue reading "Why does the creed say Jesus “descended into hell?" by Richard Ostling.

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