One of the creeds we recite as a confessional church is the Apostle’s Creed. Here are the words we recite and affirm as a fundamental statement of the Christian faith.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy (universal) church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
A curious line in this creed is the one that says Jesus descended into hell. The meaning of this statement has been discussed ever since this creed was first recited in the early churches. So to shed some light on the issue, here is how our church understands this statement.
First, the Apostle’s Creed was not written by the Apostles. Its origin is lost to history, but it came into use by the church as a confession of orthodoxy (right belief) around the end of the second century A.D. The creed was the church’s response to the many heresies that were swirling around the community of believers at that time. It appears the “descended into hell” language was added in the mid-third century and comes from 1 Peter 3:19 where Peter speaks of Jesus who, after he was resurrected, went somewhere and proclaimed something to ‘spirits’ in captivity somewhere. Several interpretations have been proposed through the ages, but if we examine each of the terms in this sentence, we can come to a pretty good conclusion on what this means.
“Spirits” in the New Testament always refers to non-human spiritual beings unless otherwise noted as in verses like Hebrews 12:23. These are nonhuman spirits, understood as angelic or demonic beings. Peter says that during the time of Noah, these spirits were disobedient to God. The passage that describes that event is Genesis 6:1-4 where we read that the “sons of God,” spirit beings, corrupted themselves and mankind by taking human women as wives resulting in a race of giants called the Nephilim. For this disobedience, all life on earth was wiped out by the flood except for Noah and his family.
We learn from Peter, from Jude and elsewhere that these disobedient spirit beings were put into prison. In the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch, Enoch sees this prison and is told, “These (the spirits) are of the number of the stars (of heaven) which have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and are bound here till ten thousand years, the time entailed by their sins, are consummated.” (1 Enoch 21.6). While 1 Enoch was not considered inspired like the sixty-six books of our Bible, the Jews they did preserve it in their writings as useful information. Thus, we have Enoch as one of the apocryphal books.
According to Peter, Jesus went to this prison which, in 2 Peter 2:4 he describes as “Tartarus” and is the place referred to in the parallel passages of Jude 6 and Revelation 20:1-3 as gloomy darkness, the pit, and the lake of fire. While we’re not told the location of this prison, it is thought by scholars to be some netherworld location either below heaven on somewhere under the earth. Wherever it is, this is where Jesus went to “proclaim” or “preach” to these spirits. The word Peter chooses to use for proclaimed is one that has the idea of judgment, not gospel because this is the announcement to his defeated foes of his victory over sin and death and the sealing of their doom forever.
Some churches believe that this reference to “descent into hell” was necessary for Jesus to fulfill something that was lacking in his suffering. But Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross, so it’s not likely this descent was for further suffering. There are too many assumptions and guesses necessary to believe that Jesus went to hell, so I think the proclamation of victory over these imprisoned spirits from long ago who are kept in prison somewhere is the best understanding.
Since all of this is unclear, why do we still have it in the Apostle’s Creed? The best answer is because of the historical aspect of joining with the church through all the ages when we recite this creed. For us to presume to remove it or substitute it in some way would only serve to separate us from those who have gone before us and the disunity it would cause far outweighs any benefit to removing the sentence. Instead, we acknowledge, to the best of our understanding, what it means and recite it as is in the spirit of unity.