“Jesus said unto him, ‘Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.'”
“Whom God has raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that He should be holden of it. For David speaks concerning Him [in Ps. 16], ‘…You will not leave my soul in Hades, neither will You suffer your Holy One to see corruption…'”
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet… he seeing this before, spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in Hades, neither his flesh did see corruption.”
Order of Contents
The Apostles’ Creed (which cannot be shown to actually be from the Apostles, but has been received in the Church as an early, concise, summary statement of Christianity) has included through much of Church history (though not all of it) the statement concerning Christ:
“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into Hell [Latin: ad infernos]. The third day He rose again from the dead.”
The ‘descent clause’ has quite a complex history and has occasioned many questions as to what it means. ‘Infernus’, the root word in Latin, simply means ‘the lower part’, and derives from Biblical passages such as Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:24-31 and others, which use the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ and the Greek word ‘Hades’.
As the author(s) of the Creed, and even its time-period of origination, is unknown, it is impossible to certainly determine the phrase’s original, historical meaning, though many interpretations have been given to it in history.
The webmaster of this website holds that the correct Biblical interpretation of the concept, and the most natural interpretation of the Creed, is that in Christ dying and being buried, He descended into the grave and continued, body and soul, under the power of death for 3 days, while his Spirit went directly to Heaven (which is part of ‘Sheol’, or ‘Hades’, the realm beyond the grave) during that time.
This view is also the view of Westminster Larger Catechism #50 and many modern translations of the Creed which translate the clause: ‘He descended into the grave’, or ‘He descended to the dead’.
The other main reformed interpretation is that of the Heidelberg Catechism, that the descent into Hell refers to Christ’s soul-sufferings on the cross, enduring the penalty for sin and being forsaken of the Father. This, in Scripture, may be linked to ‘Hades’ in Acts 2:24 which speaks of Christ being loosed from the ‘pains of death’. Isa. 53 also inseparably links Christ suffering the penalty of sin with his death. However note that the descent clause comes after Christ’s death and burial in the Creed, and not before them.
Some reformed commentators see a reference in the Creed to both of these views: that Christ’s soul suffered Hell-agony on the cross and his body laid under the power of Sheol in the grave.
This creedal doctrine is worth your time in further searching into. May the resources below be of great help to you, and may the Lord add his blessing to your use of them.
Historic Documents 3
Heidelberg Catechism 1563
“#44. Why is there added, “He descended into hell”?
That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, (a) but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell. (b)
(a) Ps.18:5,6; Ps.116:3; Matt.26:38; Heb.5:7; Isa.53:10; Matt.27:46
[While the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism is perfectly, Biblically true, the drawback to its interpretation is that Christ’s sufferings on the cross were before He died, yet ‘Hell’ in the Creed is placed after Christ’s death. Though, for a counter-response, see Calvin below.]
The 1599 Geneva Bible Notes
“Acts 2:24 ¹”Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the ²pains of death: because it was not possible that He should be holden of it.”
¹As David foretold, Christ did not only rise again, but also was void of all decay in the grave.
²The death that was full of sorrow both of body and mind: therefore when death appeared conqueror and victor over those sorrows, Christ is rightly said to have overcome those sorrows of death when, as being dead, he overcame death, to live forever with his Father.
Acts 2:27 “Because Thou wilt not ³leave my soul in hell, neither wilt Thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”
³You will not allow me to remain in the grave.”
Westminster Larger Catechism 1646
“#50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?
A. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried,[h] and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day;[i] which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
[Note that Westminster posits the Descent as part of Christ’s humiliation, not as part of his triumphant exaltation. This is consistent with Ps. 16:10, Eph. 4:9 and Acts 2:24-27, which posit Messiah being under the power of the grave as part of his humiliation (something that normal people go through, such as David, and need to be delivered from) and not part of his exaltation.]
‘In Defense of the Descent: A Confessional Response to Contemporary Critics of Christ’s Descent into Hell’ in The Confessional Presbyterian (2007), vol. 3, pp. 104-17
This is best work on the topic. It is an excellent short and readable, but very detailed Biblical and historical defense of the phrase the Descent Clause.
Hyde argues for a two-fold meaning (as Witsius does), that the descent refers to Christ experiencing the curse of being forsaken by God on the Cross and that His body remained under the power of the grave for three days.
Calvin, John – bk. 2, ch. 16, sections 8-12 in Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Beveridge (†1564) 8 pp.
Calvin takes the view that the Heidelberg Catechism would later take, that it speaks of Christ’s soul sufferings on the cross.
Ursinus, Zachariah – “Christ’s Descent into Hell: Question 44” in Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (†1583), pp. 228-32
Ursinus was one of the principal authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, and here gives his commentary on it. This work was widely influential during his day and afterwards.
Perkins, William – ‘The Descension of Christ’ in An Exposition of the Symbol, or Creed of the Apostles in Works (†1602; London: Legatt, 1626), vol. 1, pp. 231-34
Perkins surveys the four main views of the clause, and concludes: “These two last expositions [3. Christ’s soul-sufferings on the cross, and 4. being under the power of the grave] are commonly received, and we may indifferently make choice of either, but the last (as I take it) is most agreeable to the order and words of the Creed.” – p. 233
Bucanus, William – 25. ‘Of Christ’s Descending into Hell’ in Institutions of Christian Religion... (London: Snowdon, 1606), pp. 245-53
Was the article of Christ’s descending to hell always joined with the rest of the Apostles’ Creed?
What does the word infernus (which is commonly translated ‘hell’) signify in the Scriptures?
What signifies the word ‘descending’?
What is the first?
What think you of this exposition?
What is the second?
Do you like this opinion?
What is the third opinion?
What think you of this judgment of the fathers?
What is the fourth opinion?
What is the fifth?
Do you approve of this then?
What is the sixth?
Is this exposition agreeable to truth?
But this seems to make against the exposition, namely that the torments of the mind are put after the griefs of the body in the Creed?
But it may be objected: Although they ought to be set after death and crucifying, yet they should not have been mentioned after burial?
But could God ever be angry with his only and most beloved Son, Christ, or forsake Him?
Why was it needful He should suffer these torments?
What profit redounded to us by Christ’s descending into hell?
What is the use of Christ’s descending into hell?
What is opposite to this doctrine
Rogers, John – pp. 499-504 of Commentary on 1 Peter 3 in A Godly & Fruitful Exposition upon all the First Epistle of Peter (†1636)
Lightfoot, John – A Discourse upon the Fourth Article of the Apostolic Creed: ‘He Descended into Hell’ in his 2 vol. Works, (1684)
Pearson, John – ‘Article 5: He Descended into Hell…’ in An Exposition of the Creed (†1686), pp. 428-79
Pearson (1613-1686) was an Anglican (not reformed), who wrote the major exposition of the Creed in the 1600’s, renowned by all. His survey of the topic is important though his conclusion appears to be unique and not wholly satisfactory:
Pearson’s conclusion, on pp. 478-9, is that, while Christ’s sufferings finished on the cross, yet his soul went locally, as though a sinner, to the place where sinners go when dead (being necessary, in his opinion, to undergo the full penalty of death, yet as then raised therefrom as no sin was in Him.
Turretin, Francis – Institutes of Elenctic Theology, tr. George M. Giger, ed. James Dennison Jr. (1679–1685; P&R, 1994), vol. 2, 13th Topic
15. ‘Was the soul of Christ, after its separation from the body, translated to paradise immediately? Or did it descend locally to hell? The former we affirm; the latter we deny against the papists and Lutherans.’ 356
16. ‘May the descent into hell be rightly referred to infernal torments and to a most abject state under the dominion of death in the sepulcher? We affirm.’ 361
A’Brakel, Wilhelmus – ‘Christ’s Descent into Hell’ in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1, pp. 583-84
A’Brakel concludes that being ‘buried’ refers to his body being laid in the grave, and his descent into Hell refers to his soul-sufferings on the cross.
Witsius, Herman – Dissertation 18, ‘On Christ’s Descent into Hell’ in Sacred Dissertations on what is Commonly Called the Apostles’ Creed, pp. 137-65
Witsius combines both reformed views: that with respect to his body, it refers to the grave, and with respect to his soul, it refers to his sufferings on the cross.
Ridgley, Thomas – “Christ’s Humiliation After his Death” in A Body of Divinity… being the Substance of Several Lectures on the Assembly’s Larger Catechism (†1734), vol. 2, pp. 602-606
Cunningham, William – pp. 90-93 of ch. 3, ‘The Apostles Creed’ in Historical Theology (1863), vol. 1, pp. 90-94
Schaff, Philip – ‘Note 2 – Descendit ad Inferna’ (1878) in Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, ‘The Apostles Creed’, p. 46
Vos, Geerhardus – ‘Did Jesus Descend into Hell’ in Reformed Dogmatics, introduced by Nick Batzig
Hill, Charles E. – ‘He Descended into Hell’ (2010) 33 paragraphs
Hill is the professor of N.T. and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. This was a chapel address, and contains some helpful historical data (regarding Olevianus, Beza and some in the Early Church) and insights.
Jones, Mark – “Keeping ‘Christ’s Descent into Hell'” (2015) 24 paragraphs
In arguing that churches should keep the descent clause (contrary to Rick Phillips who argued otherwise), Jones helpfully surveys much early reformed thought (and others) on the subject, citing: Andrewes, Perkins, Heppe, Calvin, a committee of the Westminster Assembly, Ussher, Featley, Latimer, Durand, Tilenus & Goodwin.
Jones says that ‘I am personally unaware of any Early Modern Reformed theologians advocating for the rejection of the phrase.’ That may well be true, but Theodore Beza, according to Hill above, was one such person.
English Popish Ceremonies (Naphtali Press, 1993), pt. 2, ch. 3, p. 77
“…it is well enough known how many heterodox doctrines are maintained by Formalists, who are most zealous for the ceremonies, about universal grace, free-will… Christ’s passion and descending into Hell… etc. Their errors about those heads we will demonstrate, if need be, to such as doubt of their mind. In the meantime, it has been preached [by formalists] from our pulpits among ourselves that Christ died for all alike; that the faithful may fall away from grace… that Christ descended locally unto the place of the damned…”
11. ‘Of the Same, a Short Appendix on the Descent to Inferos’ in Select Theological Disputations (Utrecht: Waesberg, 1655), vol. 2, pp. 188-95
The Old Testament Saints went to Heaven upon Death (contrary to Romanism, Dispensationalism, some Preterists, etc.)
“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”
“Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For Thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol; neither wilt Thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”
Interpretation of Ps. 16:9-11
David takes comfort in that his ‘flesh’, or person (body and soul), will rest (that is, die and rest in the grave) in hope. God will not leave his soul under the power of death, but David trusts that he will, upon death, immediately enter into the fullness of life and joy in God’s presence at his right hand in Heaven. In the promise of God not to leave his holy saints in corruption (as bodies rot and disintegrate in the grave), David looked forward to the day in which God would resurrect his body to life.
This passage, however, finds its primary fulfillment in David’s Lord, the Messiah, of whom David was a figure, as Acts 2:24-31 rightly argues that King David’s body was at that time rotting in the grave, corrupted. Rather, the true ‘Holy One’ would be the first-fruits of this passage, receiving its highest promise and blessing:
Christ’s spirit upon death went immediately to the Heaven to be in the fullness of the presence of God, and his body was not left to rot in the grave (which normally happens 3 days after death), but was resurrected to life, and shortly ascended to God’s right hand.
Westminster Larger Catechism, #86
[Notice the citation of Ps. 16:9 in the Old Testament as a proof-text.]
“Q. 86. What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?
A. The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness,[l] and received into the highest heavens,[m] where they behold the face of God in light and glory,[n] waiting for the full redemption of their bodies,[o] which even in death continue united to Christ,[p] and rest in their graves as in their beds,[q] till at the last day they be again united to their souls.[r]…
Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.6
“The justification of believers under the Old Testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament.[r]
The Meaning of ‘Hades’ & ‘Sheol’
Conservative Bible Encyclopedias
McClintock & Strong Biblical Cyclopedia (1880)
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) (1939)
Howe, John – pp. 208-16 of The Redeemer’s Dominion Over the Invisible World (†1705) on Rev. 1:18, “I have the keys of Hades and of death”
Howe was a late 1600’s English dissenter.
Consistent with many modern Bible Dictionaries, Howe demonstrates that Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in classical and Biblical Greek often designates the grave and the realm beyond the grave for souls, both Heaven and Hell separately, or together. This definition of the word is consistent with Westminster’s viewpoint on the Descent clause.
Why does the King James Version use ‘Hell’ in these Passages?
Phillip Schaff (cited above) says:
“The words [in Greek] katotata and [in Lain] inferna [in the Creed], taken from Eph. 4:9, correspond here to the Greek Hades, which occurs eleven times in the Greek Testament, viz. Mt. 11:23; 16:18; Lk. 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27,31; 1 Cor. 15:55; Rev. 1:18; :8; 20:13,14 and is always incorrectly translated ‘hell’ in the English Version, except in 1 Cor. 15:55. Hades signifies, like the Hebrew Sheol, the unseen spirit-world, the abode of all the departed, both the righteous and wicked;
while ‘hell’ (probably from the Saxon word helan, ‘to cover’, ‘to conceal’), at least in modern usage, is a much narrower conception, and signifies the state and place of eternal damnation, like the Hebrew gehenna, which occurs twelve times in the Greek Testament, and is so translated in the English Bible, viz. Mt. 5:22,29-30; 10:28; 1:; 23:15,33; Mk. 9:43,45,47; Lk. 12:5; Jm. 3:6.”
The reason why the King James Version has often translated Sheol and Hades as Hell, is because, in addition to meaning a place of punishment, the word also meant in the 1600’s (contra Schaff who says the passages are ‘incorrectly translated’) exactly what Sheol and Hades meant: the abode of the dead, the grave. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 1979) gives this as the first meaning of ‘hell’:
“The abode of the dead; the place of departed spirits; the infernal regions or ‘lower world’ regarded as a place of existence after death; the grave; Hades.”
The OED then cites as support of this meaning numerous instances from the King James Version, numerous literature citations from A.D. 825 through the 1500’s & 1600’s, up through the 1800’s, and English translations of Greek, Latin and Scandinavian mythology during the same time-frame.
For those who use the King James Version from the pulpit today (as it is still the best English translation of the Bible that we have available today), be sure to explain what ‘hell’ means in these passages, lest one speak in an unknown tongue; otherwise a translation that is more consistent with our modern use of language should be used, such as ‘grave’ or ‘the abode of the dead’.
The Meaning of the ‘Lower Parts of the Earth’ in Eph. 4:9
“Wherefore He saith, ‘When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.’ [Ps. 68:18] (Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.)”
Per the verses below, Eph. 4:8-10 most likely means that He who (1) descended to the lower parts of the earth in the incarnation to dwell among men, (2) descended in being buried in the ground, and (3) descended in going to the realm beyond the grave, is the same One who ascended into the heavens.
To see how this fits the original context of Ps. 68 and the Exodus, from whence Eph. 4:9 is a quote, see Vos’ article above. See also John Trapp on Eph. 4.
“…for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My substance was not hid from Thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.”
“Sing, O ye heavens; for the Lord hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest, and every tree therein: for the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel.”
“But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth.”
[This last verse could mean in context either the grave, the afterworld, or Hell specifically.]
The Meaning of 1 Pet. 3:18-20
1 Pet. 3:18-20
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
By which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”
A common reformed interpretation of this passage, which does justice to the context of this passage, its grammar and the larger theology of the Bible, is that Christ preached by his Spirit (see Gen. 6:3 & Eph. 2:13,17) through Noah (2 Pt. 2:5) to the persons (‘spirit’ in Hebrew, which the Greek reflects, usually means persons, both body and soul) of the old world before the Flood, who are now in the prison of Hell.
Note that the interpretation of this passage which holds that it speaks of Christ descending into Hell, would make this event to happen, not before, but after his Resurrection.
Poole, Matthew – ‘Commentary on 1 Peter 3’
Leighton, Robert – pp. 199-215 of Commentary on 1 Peter
Wilson, John M. – “Note 3, ‘The Spirits in Prison'” (1855) 1 large paragraph Wilson was the editor of Thomas Ridgley’s Lectures on the Larger Catechism, in which work this note appears
Jamieson, Fausset, Brown – Commentary on 1 Peter 3
Historical Theology, vol. 1, p. 92
“…with respect to the very obscure and difficult passage in 1 Pet. 3:19, about his going and preaching to the spirits in prison, I must say that I have never met with an interpretation of it that seemed to me altogether satisfactory. Among the many interpretations that have been given of it, there are just two in support of which anything really plausible, as it appears to me, can be advanced–viz.,
first, that which regards the preaching there spoken of as having taken place in the time of Noah, and through the instrumentality of Noah; and
secondly, that which regards it as having taken place after his resurrection, and through the instrumentality of the apostles.
The latter view is ably advocated in Dr. John Brown’s Expository Discourses on First Peter [pp. 515-518]. If either of these interpretations be the true one, the passage has no reference to the period of his history between his death and resurrection.”
Lectures on the First and Second Epistles of Peter, p. 240
“The view, that is now generally taken on these points in the Protestant churches, is said to have been first broached by Augustine in the fourth century, and is to the effect, that the preaching spoken of took place in the antediluvian [before the flood] period, when the Spirit of Christ, as He is called in the first chapter of our Epistle [1 Pet. 1:11], ‘strove with man,’ and Noah, the ‘preacher of righteousness,’ and prophet of the coming doom, stood up under his inspiration, and by word and act ‘condemned the world’ of the ungodly. (Gen. 6:3; 2 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 11:7) These ungodly, it has been thought, may be said to have been at that time ‘spirits in prison,’ inasmuch as they were then held in the bondage of the flesh and of ignorance. (So Augustine, etc.)
Or, should this be reckoned a little fanciful or far-fetched, still the designation may be derived in the custody of the Divine justice unto the judgment of the great day, though, when Christ preached to them, they were living men in the flesh. (So Beza, etc.)”
The Early Church
See also Phillip Schaff above, under “Articles – 1800’s”.
Ussher, James – ch. 8, ‘Of Limbus Patrum & Christ’s Descent into Hell’ in An Answer to a Challenge Made by a Jesuit in Ireland (d. 1656), pp. 238-361
This work is a survey of the early Church on the topic, demonstrating the late origins of the Roman Catholic views on the subject.
The View of Martin Luther & those of Early Lutheranism
Bente, F. – ch. 19, ‘Controversy on Christ’s Descent into Hell’ (sections 218-21) in Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions
This excellent historical discussion examines Martin Luther’s unique teaching on the subject, and the development of early Lutheranism on the topic.
Luther understood the descent to involve both Christ’s body and soul descending in triumph over Hell, emphasizing that it must involve both Christ’s body and soul due to the unity of his Person. It is possible to agree with Luther in part, that Christ descended into Sheol body and soul, but to understand Sheol as the power of death, the grave and the whole, spiritual world on the other side of the grave, namely his going immediately to Paradise, or Heaven.
Luther, Martin – pp. 88-91 of A Commentary upon 1 Peter 3 (†1546) in A Commentary or Exposition upon the Two Epistles General of Saint Peter & that of Saint Jude
“Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt Thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”
“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”