“The Link” – September 2017: The “descended into hell” clause – an aberration

Dear Friends,

A desire of the session, here at MPC, is for us to regularly state together the Christian creeds and elements of the Westminster Confession as part of our corporate worship. We have not yet said the Apostles’ Creed, since I’ve arrived, but the session would like to start incorporating it. The Apostles’ Creed is a wonderful, straightforward statement of faith. Before moving ahead with this, a particular issue in the Apostles’ Creed we’d like to address is the clause, “descended into hell.” The session is in agreement, consistent with many churches across the denomination, that this is an inaccurate, unbiblical statement, as it is written in the creed, and should not be included when we say the creed together. So, the session asked me to write a brief statement as to why and include it in the Link. Below is my humble attempt to briefly accomplish that task.

History. The creed was not given by the apostles, rather, it developed over time, from about “A.D. 200 to 750” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 586). The clause “descended into hell” is not found in any of the early forms of the creed. It did not appear until a version used by a church in Aquileja, testified to by Rufinus in A.D. 390. Yet, Rufinus himself understood it to mean that Christ was “buried,” what we would translate into English, “descended into the grave” rather an actual descent into Hell (Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 1.21, n. 6). From that point, the clause disappeared from orthodox Christianity until it reappeared in A.D. 650.

The Apostles’ Creed would seem to entirely consist of core teachings of the apostles, yet this late addition, the phrase “descended into hell” is an aberration. Despite this, the church picked up this aberration, and held onto it. It has even been defended in very creative ways, trying to somehow make it sync with Scripture.

John Calvin, for instance, posited the idea that “‘Christ’s descent into hell’ refers to Christ experiencing hell on the cross when God’s wrath was poured down upon him (see Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.10). This is also the argument for the phrase in the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44. I call this solution to the problem the “Calvin workaround.” Calvin and the Catechism agree that Christ did not descend into Hell (the place of punishment). Yet, evidently, for the sake of preserving the ancient creed, a metaphorical Hell that Jesus experienced on the cross is to be understood when the clause is recited.

This “Calvin workaround,” however, makes the issue confusing and is unnecessary. It means that when we say the creed with this understanding and with the statement included, we say that Christ was literally crucified, literally dead, literally buried, but metaphorically descended to Hell back when he was on the cross, literally rose again on the third day, etc. This workaround is inconsistent with the thrust of the language of the creed.

There was quite a bit of disagreement over the clause’s inclusion even by the Westminster divines in the 17th century. Their solution is given in the answer to WLC Question 50: “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” The caveat the divines make, “which hath been otherwise expressed,” was evidently an attempt to solve the issue by applying to the clause an accurate biblical statement of meaning. In other words, to say, “When it says this, it really means that.” So, while the WLC statement is correct in its assertion concerning Christ’s humiliation after his death, the last clause, while a completely different assertion than the Calvin workaround, applies the same tactic as Calvin. It redefines the statement, “He descended into hell,” to mean something it does not actually say.

Probably the most quoted scripture in support of the statement “descended into hell” is 1 Peter 3:18-20. However, a typical Reformed understanding of the passage in context, (dating back to Augustine) and my view, is that the passage is not referring to what happened during the time of Jesus’ being under the power of death. Rather, it is a statement that refers to Christ, “in Spirit,” preaching through Noah to the people at the time shortly before the flood (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:10-11; see Edmund Clowney, The Message of First Peter, 154-167). This ties in with our understanding that salvation has always been through Christ, and that his crucifixion (paying the penalty for believers’ sins) and resurrection (being made alive by the Spirit) made effectual the salvation of those who trusted in God in the Old Testament. Hence, they were justified by faith. In other words, Noah was saved by Jesus, and those who rejected Noah’s preaching therefore rejected Jesus. Now that Christ has been crucified, those people who died long ago are spirits in prison waiting the final judgment. Peter refers to them as they are, which is in the present, having rejected the gospel proclaimed to them in the past. After one dies, there is no second chance to believe and be saved (Luke 16:19-31; Heb. 9:27).