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"He Descended into Hell"
Sheol, Hell, and the Dead
The Apostles' Creed
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son,
our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father
Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I
believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the holy catholic church, the
communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the
body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
The phrase “he descended into hell” in the Apostle's Creed often causes
confusion for modern Christians, especially evangelical Christians, who are
accustomed to hearing the term "hell" used in very different ways. In many
of those Christian traditions “hell” has come to mean only the place of
eternal punishment after death. With this meaning, many also connect
this part of the Apostle's Creed with several passages in 1 Peter that seem
to refer to Jesus "preaching to the dead" who are presumably in hell.
There are two perspectives necessary to understand this issue, one
cultural and historical and the other exegetical. In the old King James
Version, the English word “hell” actually was used to translate two
different words and two very different concepts. One term was the word
gehenna, (for example, Matt 5:22). This was adapted from the name of a
valley to the south of the Temple in Jerusalem where the city garbage was
burned, the “Valley of Hinnom.” Because of the perpetual fires, and also
because there had been idols to the Canaanite god Molech erected there to
which were offered human sacrifices,
ge hinnom (“valley of Hinnom” in Hebrew; 2 Kings 23:10) became a symbol for the
judgment of God. The fires also came to symbolize that punishment and
destruction, and became the more common way to conceptualize “hell” in later
Another term, and one more relevant to our topic, is the Greek term Hades
(for example, Matt 11:23). This term comes from Greek mythology in which it
was the abode of the dead. It was used to translate into Greek the Hebrew
concept of Sheol. While in the Old Testament this term was not
mythological, it was a metaphorical way to talk about what happened to
people when they died. Sheol was simply the place where dead people go. It
was almost synonymous with death and especially “grave,” and indeed is used
that way in several Old Testament passages, for example, Psa 49:14:
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and
their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.
In other words, Sheol or Hades was a poetic way to say, “they died and
were buried.” It is in this sense that the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed is
used, using the ambiguous word “hell” in English, when the more precise idea
of Hades actually lies behind the statement. “He descended into hell” then
becomes nothing more than a statement that Jesus died and was placed in the
tomb, the grave. Using Hebrew concepts, Israelites would say he descended into Sheol,
that is, was lowered into the grave. Or they could say that he slept with the fathers
(for example, 1 Kings 2:10), that
is, was placed in a family tomb. It is in that context that the
affirmation of the resurrection is so powerful.
This confusion of the concept may already have been at work in the early
church, and may even have influenced the passages in 1 Peter, recognized by
most scholars to be some of the latest in the New Testament written near the
end of the first century. We cannot be sure of that, but in any case there
is more to be gained in looking exegetically at those passages.
In two passages in 1 Peter (3:19, 4:6) it might sound as if Jesus
preached to those who have already died, presumably with the goal of calling
them to repentance. This is especially appealing when those verses are read
in light of the later concept of purgatory developed in Catholic tradition
from passages in the apocryphal books of Macabees. However, a careful
examination of the passages in 1 Peter does not confirm that perspective
(cf. J. Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary).
1 Peter 3:18-20a: For Christ also
suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order
to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the
spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits
in prison, who in former times did not obey . . .
In 3:19 the Greek word kyrusso is used, translated "made a
proclamation," the only occurrence of the
word in 1 Peter. In other passages in 1 Peter when the redemptive
proclamation of the gospel is intended, the word used is euaggelizo
(1 Pet 2:9, 4:6; pronounced euangelizo in English).
So the term translated "preached" in some versions of 3:19 should more
correctly be rendered "made proclamation" (so New Revised English Bible, above, NASB, NRSV, as opposed to the NIV). This means that the purpose of
Christ's activity was not to convert imprisoned spirits but to announce his
vindication through his death and resurrection (3:18).
spirits" may be understood in the sense of evil spirits secluded or hiding
from the presence and judgment of God. Thus Christ's proclamation brings
them out into the open and brings them into submission, much like
Philippians 2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient
to the point of death-- even death on a cross. 2:9 Therefore God also
highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 2:10
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on
earth and under the earth, 2:11 and every tongue should confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This interpretation is supported by the statement in 1
Peter 3:22, that Christ received the submission of angels,
authorities, and powers.
1 Peter 3:21 . . .through the resurrection of
Jesus Christ, 3:22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of
God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Or it is possible that the "imprisoned spirits"
refer to everyone who had died, with "prison" being a metaphorical way
to refer to death itself. In any case, the proclamation made is that
death has been conquered in Jesus' resurrection.
In 4:6 the word used is euaggelizo, but in a different sense than
kyrusso is used in 3:19.
1 Peter 4:3-6: You have already spent
enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness,
passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. 4:4 They are
surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation,
and so they blaspheme. 4:5 But they will have to give an accounting to him
who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. 4:6 For this is the
reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though
they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in
the spirit as God does.
The sense of 1 Peter 4:6 is best rendered in the Revised English Bible
That was why the gospel was preached
even to the dead: in order that, although in the body they were condemned
to die as everyone else dies, yet in the spirit they might live as God
This means that the gospel "was preached" in the past to people
who are now dead, not that it was preached now by Christ to those
who are in the realm of the dead. The NRSV seems to render it along the
same lines. This is also more obviously the meaning in 3:19 that
gives an example from the past. In other words, preaching (euaggelizo) to those who are now dead was made in the past to call them
to repentance and eternal life, while the death of Jesus is a proclamation
(kyrusso) of condemnation to those who are now dead who had earlier
refused to respond to that preaching.
This strongly suggests that we cannot on the basis of 1 Peter make a case
for the proposition that the dead may still respond to the gospel and be
saved. In light of this evidence, there does not seem to be any biblical
support, and very little support in early Christian tradition beyond the
highly questionable concept of purgatory, that Jesus descended into hell and
preached to those who had already died with the goal of calling them to
repentance beyond the grave.
This returns us to the phrase in the Apostles' Creed with which we
are familiar in English: "He descended into hell." In the Greek
version of the Apostles' Creed, the word translated "hell" is κατώτατα
(katātata), "the lowest." In the Latin version the word is
inferos, "those below." In both languages the words refer to the
underworld as the dwelling place of the dead. So, in either of the
original versions of the Creed, the phrase is best translated as "he
descended into the underworld," or "he descended into the realm of the
dead." In non-poetic language, it is simply "he was buried."
The phrase in the Apostles’ Creed simply refers
to the fact that Jesus died and was buried, from which he arose victorious
over death. The proclamation that Jesus brought to those who had died was
that death had been conquered and they would be freed from the grip and
power of death.
This perspective is actually the earliest interpretation of Jesus'
"descent into hell." It is still preserved in the Roman Catholic
Catechism, although complicated by other affirmations.
frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was "raised from the
dead" presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of
the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given
in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that
Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the
others in the realm of the dead . . .
Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ
went down, "hell"—Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in
Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.
Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while
they await the redeemer. . .
By the expression "He descended into hell," the Apostles' Creed
confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us
conquered death and the devil "who has the power of death" (Heb
2:14). In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead
Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven's gates
for the just who had gone before him. -1-
A question is often raised at this point: where was Jesus between his
death and the resurrection? I would simply suggest that this is a question
that arises much more from our modern concepts and metaphysics than it does
from the biblical perspective. That means that we are probably not going to
get a biblical answer for this question. From the biblical perspective, the
answer would be simply, he was in the grave, he was dead.
We have tended to overlay this perspective with a concept of immortality
of the soul that comes almost entirely from Greek philosophy rather than
from the pages of Scripture (see Body and Soul).
In that view, death is not really real, but only a doorway through which we
pass on the way from one level of existence to another. In that way of
thinking, the question of “where?” is forced to the foreground. But that is
not a question that is ever raised from the biblical traditions, which
suggests that from that perspective there will be no answer to the question.
The bottom line is that finally “where?” is not that important a
question, except to try to satisfy our curiosity about something that we
cannot know. Either we will live again after death or we will not. If we
accept that the resurrection of Jesus is the “first fruits” of those who
have died (1 Cor 15:21-26), then the how and when is of no significant
consequence. And finally the biblical testimony is not about the details,
but affirms more strongly than we sometimes can see the fact of the
resurrection as a source of hope.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed.,
Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 5, Paragraph 1, #631-637,
Doubleday, 2003. In fairness, the Catechism also expresses the
Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory interwoven into this section. [Return]
Issues in Biblical Interpretation