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Descent Into Hell

DESCENT INTO HELL. The familiar Apostles’ Creed affirmation that Jesus descended into hell is based chiefly on two references by Peter, one of which (1Pet.3.19) is more direct than the other (1Pet.4.6), supported by implications to be taken from two other NT verses (Acts.2.27; Rom.10.7). The term is in harmony also with the language of Paul where he speaks of Christ’s descending “to the lower earthly regions” (Eph.4.9), and with John’s mention of “the First and the Last” who holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev.1.17-Rev.1.18). The lowest regions were recognized as the habitation of the disembodied spirits of the dead, but 1Pet.4.6 may refer rather to fallen angels (cf. Jude.1.6).

This should more properly be called “the descent into Hades,” for the Greek word Hades renders the Hebrew Sheol and means “the place of the departed.” This is to be distinguished from the word Gehenna, which refers to “the place of punishment.” Peter on the day of Pentecost quotes Psalm 16 and then refers it to Jesus, saying that “he was not abandoned to Hades” (Acts 2:31 RSV), and Paul tells his readers not to ask who will go into the abyss to bring up Christ from the dead (Rom. 10:7). These references are reinforcing NT statements about the reality of the death of Christ and therefore the reality of His resurrection. He shared to the full the human experience of death.

The descent was asserted in some early Arian creeds. It was not in the Old Roman Creed, but reached the Apostles' Creed via the Aquileian Creed of Rufinus about 400. It is not mentioned in the Nicene Creed. As to what Christ did in descending to Hades, beyond sharing human experience, we have the two very difficult passages in 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6. The proclamation of Christ's triumph seems to be involved, but there is no clear agreement about the nature of the message or the type of people who heard it.