(Apostles' Creed #6)
1 Peter 3:17-22
The Apostles’ Creed is a regular part of weekly worship for millions and millions of Christians, the world over. It’s recited across denominations - Reformed, Anglican, Catholic... and can be heard in practically every language known to man...
Of course, some parts of the Creed are more perplexing & challenging than others. You know... if I’d had any sense at all - Sherrad (our Associate Pastor) would be preaching today!
Because our topic today is one of the more puzzling statements in the Creed: the part that asserts [Jesus] descended into Hell.
The fact is... we all have an idea of what Hell is, don’t we? The abode of the Devil, with his pointy tail and pitchfork! But - the truth is - most of our ideas and commonly held assumptions about Hell... don’t come from the Bible. We’ve actually developed most of our conception of Hell and what Hell is like, from literature - extra biblical sources. But... we’ll talk a little more about what Hell is in a few minutes.
First of all... in order to understand why this phrase is included in the Apostles’ Creed... we have to look at the Creed from a historical perspective. We know that the Apostles’ Creed was not written by the actual apostles! It’s called the Apostles’ Creed because it was the early Church’s attempt to give a summary of apostolic teaching. A summation of the teachings of the Apostles, as handed down from the first days of the faith.
Of course, the Apostles’ Creed, like other creeds in the church’s history, was partly a response to distorted teachings that were present in some communities; it was statement of orthodox belief.
The earliest reference scholars can find to the phrase “he descended into hell” comes from around the middle of the third century. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t in the original—no one knows when the original was written—but it does seem to suggest that this phrase is a later addition to the Creed... and, honestly, it’s been causing trouble ever since.
And he reason for it’s inclusion is theological as well as biblical.
NOW... having said that... let me say this: the Apostles’ Creed contains the Truth of the Gospel... it helps us profess and confess the Truth of the Gospel (as we’ve talked about for weeks now). But the Apostles’ Creed is NOT the Gospel. It’s not God’s Holy Word. It helps us define what we believe... it’s a tool... that helps us set the parameters (the playing field), but it’s not the wholly sufficient and authoritative Word of God. It certainly points us to that Word... but the Creed itself is not that Word.
Clear as mud... right?
We recognize the problem: Jesus, when he’s on the cross, speaks to the thief next to him, and assures him that “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Now, of course, you don’t have to be a “rocket scientist” to understand that Jesus’ words on the cross would seem to indicate that Jesus was planning to go to paradise, not Hell. So in some sense Jesus goes to paradise. We know that his body goes into the tomb. His soul apparently is in paradise.
Consider Jesus’ own words, from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: the beggar Lazarus died and “angels carried him to Abraham’s side” (or bosom, an idiom for Paradise). But the Rich Man, when he died, went to Hades... where “a great chasm” (or gulf) separated the two, and could not be crossed.
In 1 Peter 3:19, Peter talks about “this Jesus, who by the same spirit by which he is raised from the dead goes and preaches to the lost spirits in prison.” That verse has been used as the principal proof that, at some point after his death (generally believed to be between his death and his resurrection), Jesus actually went to Hell.
Of course, some argue that Jesus went into Hell to experience the fullness of the weight of our sin - the magnitude of suffering - the full penalty for human sin - in order to give complete atonement for sin. That it was a necessary element of Christ’s passion.
But others, (actually most) who believe that Jesus made an actual descent into Hell, do not see him going to Hell for further suffering - because - didn’t Jesus declare on the cross, “It is finished.” Rather, Jesus goes to Hell to liberate those spirits who, from antiquity, have been held in prison. His task in Hell then is one of triumph, liberating Old Testament saints.
R. C. Sproul (one of the greatest Reformed theologians of our time) says, “I personally think that the Bible is less than clear on [this] point because the lost spirits in prison could very well refer to lost people in this world. Peter doesn’t tell us who the lost spirits in prison are or where the prison is. People are making a lot of assumptions when they consider that this is a reference to Hell and that Jesus went there between his death and his resurrection.”
And we all know what happens when we “assume” things, right. We make a beast of burden of “u” and “me.”
So what does the Apostles’ Creed mean? What’s it trying to communicate when it says, “He descended into Hell?”
The word “Hell” in the Apostles’ Creed does not mean the place of eternal punishment, Gehenna of the New Testament, or the lake of fire that burns forever. It’s rather Hades, or the Old Testament Sheol. This word is used often as a synonym for death, or the grave, and is associated with the depths of the earth, or the depths of the sea.
But usually it has the sense of the place of the dead, where there is some consciousness of the soul, and so it’s not just (or only) talking about, or making reference to, “the grave” - or the physical place where dead body is laid. It’s a spiritual place, too.
So, the phrase “He descended into hell (Hades)” by itself, is telling us that Christ went to the realm of the dead, that is, spiritual and physical death... which alludes to complete separation from God.
It equates to the earlier phrase, “He was crucified, dead, and buried.” Jesus’ descent into Hades has to do simply with his identification with the race of Adam. Jesus was fully God... but He was also fully human (it’s one of the great mysteries of our faith). And being fully human, He truly experienced the reality of human death, the unnatural separation of body and soul... and his soul’s separation from the presence of God... in the realm of the dead.
So what does all this mean? It’s confusing... and it’s honestly a frustrating theological principle (so frustrating that some faith groups - like the Methodists - have just removed this part of the Creed and don’t even acknowledge it).
And speaking of Methodists, John Wesley offered a bit of good advice on dealing with subjects that aren’t firmly rooted, and grounded in Scripture: he said, “as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
In other words, if it’s not essential... you and I are at liberty to make up our own minds about it. And no where in God’s Word are we ever told, nor is it implied, that belief in Christ’s descent into Hell is necessary for salvation. So cut yourself some slack if you have trouble with this part of the Apostles’ Creed... because you’re not alone.
And, so again... what does all this mean?
Well... I like to think about it like this:
Personally (as in my personal opinion)... is that - the moment Jesus “gave up his spirit” (as we all will), and he was laid in Joseph’s Tomb, he “descended into hell” or the land of the dead.
But I also believe... that simply by being born... the moment God became flesh (one of us), the moment the Creator God became one with the created... he “descended into hell” in a very real sense... because the very best this life has to offer, is but a pale reflection of the glory to come, and the glory Christ knew as part of the Godhead.
But most of all... this most confusing and frustrating of phrases in the Apostles’ Creed... simply reminds me, that Christ suffered in ways that I cannot even conceive of (nor fully appreciate) because of his love for you and me. His suffering was tantamount to descending into Hell itself.
We can’t explain it... we don’t know everything it means... we can’t say with complete certainly what was originally intended by the phrase “He descended into Hell.”
But we do know, that if it means anything, it means this: No matter where we go... no matter what we experience in life or death... we will never go alone. For Jesus Christ has gone before us... and when He descended into the place of the dead, He didn’t stay there - nor shall we.
And if a simple phrase can remind us of that... it’s worth hearing again, and again, and again.
If a simple phrase can remind me - with my simple thoughts and ways - of the great Passion of Christ... it’s worth proclaiming again, and again...