Where Did The Idea of Jesus Descending to Hell Originate? And Did Jesus Descend to Hell?
The Apostles’ Creed is an expanded version of the Old Roman Creed that was being used as early as the second century. Scholars are not exact on the reasons for creating the Apostles’ Creed. Early church leaders believed the creed was written by the apostles themselves, but we don’t really know.
This statement that Jesus descended into hell is believed to have been added later, around AD 390. This would have been at the same time a bishop named Apollinarius was teaching. He was stating that Jesus was not fully human, therefore, could not be an effective sacrifice for the sins of mankind. At the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, this doctrine was condemned.
There are several thoughts as to why this statement is not in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed was developed at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Emperor Constantine gathered church leaders to create a statement of faith in response to the teachings of a man named Arius. Constantine wanted the Christian church to have a statement of faith that would unite each denomination. This would have been before the addition in the Apostle’s Creed.
Beyond the development of these creeds is the scriptural references that are viewed as evidence that Jesus descended into hell. Most scholars use 1 Peter 18-22 as scriptural evidence to stand upon. This reference along with Ephesians 4:9 develops the understanding that Jesus may have descended into hell after his death on the cross.
Understanding the Language and Meaning of the Apostles Creed
Understanding the text of a document is extremely important. A person must know what the language is and what the words of that language mean. If there is a misunderstanding, the entire meaning of a document or statement can change. Christians and scholars today must understand that documents from the early church are written in languages that can be hard to translate. When we begin to translate Hebrew or Greek into English, we must be careful.
Hell is referred to in the Old Testament with the Hebrew word Sheol. This word means hell, but it refers to the present Hell. The understanding that those who have died in their sin and are lost will immediately enter this place upon death is what the word Sheol describes.
The reference to hell in the Greek is found in the New Testament. Since the Apostle’s Creed was originally written in Greek, we will focus closely on this language. Translating Greek into English is difficult because two words describe the “abode of the dead.”
The word in Greek that speaks of the place of hell is “Gehenna.” This word describes a final retribution or physical place. The Apostles Creed does not use this word.
In the Apostle’s Creed, we find the statement “he descended into Hell” using the Greek word “Hades.” The word Hades, in Greek, refers to the state of death. It could be translated as “descended to those below.” It does not refer to the place we recognize today as hell – it refers to the physical state of death.
Theological scholar Kenneth West explains this in the following statement regarding 1 Peter 3:18-22.
“It is clear that our Lord as the man Christ Jesus went to a place of the departed dead called in the Old Testament ‘Sheol’ and in the New Testament, ‘hell,’ the word ‘hell’ being the translation of the Greek word ‘Hades.’”
Modern churches have changed the meaning of the words in the Apostles Creed. This is a change that happened as time marched forward. Words in the English language began to have different meanings than their earlier counterparts. Specifically, the word hell began to mean the place where Satan lives. In the languages of the Bible, this was not what hell was.
Today, we can find many churches that don’t recite the Apostle’s Creed. The ones that still do often leave out this phrase.
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