What the “Hell” in the Apostles’ Creed?
George C. Heider

He descended into hell”: so ran the clause in the version of the Apostles’ Creed that I learned to confess as a child. Since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America published its Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal in 2006, the same clause has appeared as “he descended to the dead.”1 A little research reveals what appears to be a perfectly reasonable explanation. What we know as the Apostles’ Creed was a product of the Western Church, first appearing in its present form in the eighth century. However, its roots go back to an Old Roman Creed dating to the third century (Kolb/Wengert, 19-20). What the creed says is important, as it has become the default baptismal creed used in the West for well over a millennium.

The tricky part is that the clause at hand does not appear in the Old Roman Creed. Somewhere along the way (the first attestation is in the fourth century), three words were added after “[he] was crucified, died, and was buried”: descendit ad inferna. Or is it inferos? Both are attested. The former comes out in English as “he descended into hell,” while the latter is the source of “he descended to the dead” (Kelly, 378). So which is it?

The massive literature on this question need not detain us here. In sum, the rendering “hell” is beset by all manner of complications, beginning with whether the intent is to say that, as part of his sacrifice in our stead, Jesus Christ suffered all the torments that human sin has earned (so Calvin) or to affirm that even before his resurrection, Jesus bearded the Satanic lion in his own den, either to rescue the Old Testament saints who had been awaiting him in faith (the so-called “harrowing of hell” in Dante’s “Inferno” and much Western medieval art) or more generally proclaimed his victory to the denizens of the underworld (an understanding growing largely out of 1 Pet 3:19). That is to say, is the descent into hell the final act of Christ’s humiliation or the first act of his exaltation (using the narrative of Phil 2:5-11 as a pattern)?

I was taught the latter view in confirmation class half a century ago. This is in keeping with long-established Lutheran teaching. The Formula of Concord basically punts on the specifics of the issue beyond that: the Epitome simply affirms that Jesus descended into hell “and destroyed hell for all believers and… redeemed them” (FC Ep. IX), while the Solid Declaration’s corresponding article is—uniquely—shorter than that of the Epitome. Given both the confusion and the speculative nature of so much of what has been written on the topic, it is no surprise to me that liturgics scholars have opted for “he descended to the dead.”

But maybe we shouldn’t settle on that option so quickly. In a recent article, Rodney Howsare argues extensively for a “tertium quid” between the “harrowing of hell” in patristic and medieval imagination and the “more modern ‘there’s-nothing-to-see-here’ approach.” Indeed, he opines with respect to the recent preference for “dead”: “it [the credal clause in question] can also not be reduced to the seemingly banal observation that Christ really did die” (Howsare, 257). Rather, he reaches to Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom he terms “the theologian of the Descent into Hell” (italics original), augmented by Karl Barth and Josef Ratzinger, to offer specific, constructive proposals on many of the issues summarized above (and more besides).

I leave it to the reader to pursue Howsare’s learned argument further, even as I acknowledge the stimulus of his work for my own thinking. But he writes as a historical and systematic theologian. I am an exegete. What I would like to offer here are reflections on two specific New Testament passages that I believe bear on the question of the appropriate understanding of the “descensus” clause of the Apostles’ Creed.

The first grows from reflection on exactly what it is that the New Testament means by “hell.” The New Testament regularly uses imagery suggesting fire and great suffering, above all in Revelation (see Rev 20:14-15). Such images may well grow out of the application to hell of the Greco-Aramaic term “Gehenna,” itself derived from the Hebrew gê ben Hinnōm, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom south of Jerusalem, where, according to the Old Testament (e.g., Jer 7:31-32), the infamous and fiery cult of child sacrifice to the netherworld deity Molek had been enacted in pre-exilic times (Heider, 897). The core understanding of hell in the New Testament, however, appears to be that of separation, as in Jesus’s repeated references to “outer darkness,” that is, apartness from light and life, and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:26, wherein Father Abraham speaks of an unbreachable chasm between the rich man in his suffering and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom.

Such an understanding illuminates Mark’s intention in quoting but one line by Jesus while on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Matt 27:46, quoting Ps 22:1). My beloved college and seminary professor Francis “Rev” Rossow used to refer to this passage as expressive of what he termed the “literal gospel,” that while on the cross Jesus had suffered hell in the literal sense of utter separation from God the Father. This understanding appeals to me, as it moves away from a spatial understanding of hell to an experiential one (which seems far more in keeping with what the Bible considers most dreadful about hell). For all our sakes, Jesus chose to know the utter separation from God that is otherwise knowable only by a choice to refuse God’s grace so persistent that finally God accedes. Jesus’s choice is redemptive, perhaps to the point that, as Karl Barth mused, there may be a hell, but it is empty. But with that we reenter the world of the systematician. For my purposes, it is enough to observe that, with respect to the credal “he descended into hell,” one plausible exegetical explanation is that Jesus did so in the darkness from noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday.

My second exegetical observation cuts in a very different direction. Right after Peter’s famous confession to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” both Matthew and Mark inform us that Jesus went on to spell out the consequences, including Jesus’s own suffering and death (and subsequent resurrection). Peter rejects this path as simply wrongheaded, to which Jesus famously replies: “Get behind me, Satan! [You are a stumbling block to me. (Matthew only)] For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt 16:23//Mark 8:33 NRSV).

The usual understanding of Jesus’s words is along the lines of “Be gone” or “Get lost,” and this interpretation is supported by the standard lexicon of New Testament Greek (Danker, 1028). Therefore, I offer an alternative reading with some trepidation. Still, the lexicon allows that “the boundary between go away and go (elsewhere) is not fixed,” and, in fact, the more common meaning, found also in modern Greek, is simply “go.” To be sure, Jesus is speaking to Peter under the figure of “Satan,” but the question remains for me: is it possible that an alternative way of understanding Jesus here is “Get (or Go) behind me, Satan” in the sense of “Get out of the way and get with the program,” or less colloquially stated, “Follow me”? If so, are Jesus’s words really limited solely to Peter?

If there is merit to this alternative, we are drawing very close to the argument of Gregory of Nyssa, who, “essentially unique among all Christian authors regarded as orthodox” held that “Christ freed humanity from evil, and healed the very author of evil himself” (Kotsko, 285-286). The alternative reading that I am suggesting does not go so far as Gregory: it does not support a sure and certain redemption of Satan. But it does suggest that perhaps Jesus had not given up even on the Evil One himself. If this is so, then the proclamation of the victorious Christ to those in prison as envisioned in 1 Peter might have had wider scope than even the most inclusive interpretations offered heretofore (with the one notable exception cited).

I am not suggesting that Jesus is simply re-calling Peter (and perhaps Satan himself) to discipleship. The verb used in the call of the disciples is akoloutheō (source of our “acolyte”), whereas here Jesus employs hupagō. What is happening here is something of far greater moment, even sublime irony: Jesus is calling Peter (and perhaps Satan himself) to accompany him all the way to the cross (cf. John 21:18-19) and thereby to hell itself (if my reading of the “cry of dereliction” above is correct). Hell will be incapable of keeping any of them out: Jesus had just promised Peter that the “gates of hell” would not hold against his followers (Matt 16:18). Death remains the monster depicted in Ugaritic literature with one lip in heaven and one on earth, ready to swallow gods and humans alike. But it will be in that moment, when Jesus reaches the depths of hell, that hell and death will lose their sting forever (to quote St. Paul quoting the prophet Hosea). If this reading is correct, at this moment the various potential senses of the descent into hell reach union.2 Nadir becomes apex, and humiliation becomes exaltation.

As Howsare’s essay demonstrates at length, many before me have suggested what amounts to a “double descent” on Jesus’s part. However, prior theologians have largely identified the first with Christ’s incarnation in human flesh and the second with the triumph of Christ in hell.

Maybe it’s simpler than that, albeit harder to fathom. What if, in fact, there was but one descensus, one in which Jesus descended into the hell of utter apartness from his Father, but by which he wrought the end of alienation of God from anyone—perhaps even the most alienated—from his presence. By such an interpretation, Jesus would be inviting Peter (and maybe even Satan) to join him in “hell,” only for them to find, along with all the denizens of utter alienation from God, that God had never, ever given up on them. “He descended into hell” would thereby be understood both as the Son’s ultimate abandonment by God the Father and his ultimate act of redemption.

Paradoxical? To be sure, but surely no more so than the notion that the almighty, infinite God became truly human in order to reconcile creation with the Creator. And what could be more Lutheran than to assert that the only road to glory runs through the cross and even hell?


George C. Heider is a senior research professor of theology at Valparaiso University. He dedicates this column to the honored memory of his first department chair at Valparaiso University, David G. Truemper (†2004), who reflected profoundly on the theology of Christ’s descent.



1 The ELW’s Leaders Desk Edition does have a footnote, “Or, ‘he descended into hell,’ another translation of this text in wide use,” but it is not in the main hymnal. The Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW), published jointly by the three major American Lutheran church bodies in 1978, had “he descended into hell” in the main text of its liturgies, but with a footnote, “Or, he descended to the dead.” The LCMS has retained “he descended into hell” without notation in both Lutheran Worship (1982) and the Lutheran Service Book (2006).

2 This notion came to me in dialogue with my colleague Frederick A. Niedner, who fondly recalls extensive conversations with Professor Truemper on the topic.


Works Cited

Danker, Frederick William, rev. and ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. 3rd edition. (BDAG) Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.

Heider, George C. “Molech.” Pages 895-898 in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4. Ed. by David Noel Freedman. NY: Doubleday, 1992.

Howsare, Rodney. “Christ’s Descent into Hell.” Pages 257-275 in T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. Ed. by Adam J. Johnson. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Creeds. 3rd edition. NY: David McKay, 1972.

Kolb, Robert, and Timothy Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

Kotsko, Adam. “The Persistence of the Ransom Theory of the Atonement.” Pages 277-293 in T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. Ed. by Adam J. Johnson. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Rossow, Francis C. Preaching the Creative Gospel Creatively. St. Louis: Concordia, 1983.

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