The belief that Jesus descended into hell comes to us primarily from the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed is often said out loud in church services and has been an important part of Christian worship since before 400 AD. Even so, many have wondered whether we can affirm the end of the fourth line, which teaches that Jesus “He descended into hell.”
Did Jesus really descend into hell after dying on the cross? Can we support this idea based on Scripture?
Did Jesus really descend into hell after dying on the cross? Can we support this idea based on Scripture? If not, what should we do about reciting the Apostles’ Creed?
At the foundation of these questions is a larger question about Scripture and tradition. If Scriptural evidence for a creedal affirmation is lacking, should we continue reciting it for tradition’s sake?
In the rest of this article, I will attempt to demonstrate that the Scriptural support for retaining this phrase is weak. Because of this, believers should consider omitting this phrase when we recite it.
Disclaimer 1: I am not—by any means—anti-creeds or confessions. Quite the opposite in fact. Even so, our theological studies must always begin with, and be checked against, the authority of Scripture.
Disclaimer 2: I do not think that I am more theologically sound than those who formulated the Apostles’ Creed or those who defend the phrase “He descended into hell” (I will link to their defenses at the end).
We will consider several possible interpretations of this phrase and compare them to Scripture. Doing so helps us see if the various understandings of “He descended into hell” match up with the Bible.
As I’ll try to show, arguments in favor of retaining “He descended into hell” are not strong enough to overcome the lack of Scriptural evidence.