Theology matters. A lot. Theology is more than the dogmas of one particular denomination; and, although it is often dogmatic, it is far more expansive than that. Theology is what we believe about God. Our theology shapes how we view the world around us, and how we relate to the divine. So whenever, as apologists, we speak of defending the faith, we must be careful not to neglect good, robust theology. It is in the context of defending the orthodox Christian position that I want to address a particular theological error that I have run into with increasing frequency. There is a theological position which states that, during the three days in which Christ was in the tomb, his soul was suffering in hell. In short Jesus went to hell. Can we really safely hold to a view like that? Is there even any justification for holding such a position? In this article, I will first address a phrase from the Apostle’s Creed which some have taken to mean Christ went to hell. Then, in part 2, I will follow up by addressing some of the main “problem-texts” that inevitably arise in a discussion like this.
The Apostles Creed (Latin: Symbolum Apostolicum) appears near the end of the second century, and again in a letter written by Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. It was intended for use as a formulation of basic Christian doctrines that could be taught to new converts, (see note 1). The creed was probably written in Latin, but an early Greek version of the creed exists from about this time. This is the version I will address here. The phrase which may suggest a belief that Jesus went to hell is this: “he descended into hell.” Now, taken at face value, this would be enough to indicate that early Christians believed in Christ’s suffering in hell. However, on closer inspection this is not so clear. When read in Greek the text says: κατελθοντα εις τα κατω΄τατα. A literal rendering of this clause in English reads: “He went beneath,” or “he went to the downward parts.” This phrase is extremely unclear; but, as we will see later, has more in common with an interpretation different than one in which Jesus went to hell. In addition, even if this were to suggest that Jesus went to hell, we have evidence that indicates that this particular statement was added to the creed in the fifth century, (see note 2).
So an appeal to the Apostle’s Creed to support this view is dubious at best. To settle the issue with any sort of Theological clarity, we must build our case by addressing the various problem texts and synthesizing an exegetically sound interpretation. This will be the objective of part 2.
1) “Apostles’ Creed – Historical Note,” Creeds of Christendom, January 16, 2014, accessed January 16, 2014, http://www.creeds.net/ancient/Apostles_Intro.htm.
2) The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, Part 1, Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, n.d.), 1.