My new discipleship guide for new believers, Grounded in the Faith, is a basic exposition of the Apostles’ Creed with discussion questions for a mentor and a disciple to explore together. One person asked me if I tacked the “he descended into hell” clause. Well, I did, and it’s worth explaining. (We’ve also explored this question in Tool Talk episode 4, if you prefer to listen.)
The Apostles’ Creed has a line that many are uncomfortable with reciting: “he descended into hell.” Those who are uncomfortable with the phrase might note that it did not enter the creed until very late, perhaps around the seventh century. But even so, the concept of Christ’s descent to the realm of the dead pervades the writings of the early Fathers. They all believed he descended there.
But the English word “hell” might be the real problem. The Greek phrase in the creed is actually simple biblical language, taken from Eph 4:9:
Creed: κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα
Eph 4:9: κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα [μέρη] τῆς γῆς
The differences are only stylistic. κατέβη changes to κατελθόντα because the lines of the creed describing Christ all begin with participles. κατώτερα is a comparative in form but most likely superlative in meaning, and thus synonymous with κατώτατα. The creed omits “of the earth” but only for terseness and because the allusion to Eph 4:9 makes obvious what lowest parts are referred to.
Thus, “he descended into hell” is a very interpretive translation. I argue in my dissertation that the descent was a descent into the realm of the dead, the underworld, but I avoid using the English word “hell,” which conjures up Dante’s Inferno. Moreover, Eph 4:9 doesn’t record any of Christ’s activity there, which the Fathers were fond of expansively (and imaginatively) elaborating on.
I argue that the descensus ad inferos is the best interpretation of Eph 4:9 for various reasons.
- The use of κατώτερα is superfluous if the incarnation is meant. Paul could have simply said κατέβη εἰς τὴν γῆν.
- The descent of the Spirit at Pentecost view (“he descended to the lower parts, namely, the earth”) borders on (or commits) modalism, especially in the way Caird expresses it in his oft-cited article.
- The κατώτερος word group is used in Hellenistic writings and in the LXX to refer to the underworld, especially with verbs such as “go into” or “descend,” and sometimes collocated with “the earth.”
- The widespread consensus of the early and later Fathers that Eph 4:9 referred to a descent into the underworld makes it difficult to favor the other two interpretations.
- The parallel in Phil 2:10 suggests a similar 3-tiered cosmology, with κατώτερα τῆς γῆς paralleling καταχθονίων (“under the earth”).
- Eph 4:10 says Christ descended and ascended in order to fill all things. The descent is not often connected to the telic clause, but it should be. The point of the descent and ascent is therefore to express Christ’s sovereignty over all regions of creation, including the realm of the dead, which he conquered through his resurrection. This theme pervades the rest of Ephesians and therefore makes the descensus the more likely interpretation of Eph 4:9.
These reasons and more are explained in greater length in my dissertation, The Divine Builder, available through Pro-Quest or perhaps somewhat soon in published form, pending acceptance. In any case, I believe the ancient view of Eph 4:9 is correct. But fitting all these details into a paragraph or two in a guide for brand new believers is quite a task! I did what I could to explain this line of the creed to new believers in a way that makes sense and that helps them understand the significance of the descent.
The phrase “he descended to the dead” is taken directly from Ephesians 4:9, which says Jesus “descended into the lowest parts of the earth.” This region is often understood as “hell,” but Ephesians 4:9 is not so specific.
A more accurate interpretation of this statement is that Jesus descended to the place of the dead. Why does the creed include this belief? According to Ephesians 4:9–10, Jesus descended into the lowest parts of creation and then, after his resurrection, ascended “far above the heavens” to take his place of honor and power at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20). He did this “in order to fill all things” with his power and sovereignty (Ephesians 4:10). In other words, he visited every corner of creation, including the place of the dead, and conquered it! Jesus has expressed his complete control and power over the entire universe that he shares with his Father. If we belong to Jesus, whom or what shall we fear?
I hope this simple explanation will put minds at ease when they recite the creed. Moreover, I suggest ministers use the phrase “he descended to the dead” instead of “he descended into hell.” Neither is entirely literal, but the former is far more conceptually accurate and will further ease the minds of those who recite this line of the creed.