…He descended to the dead… February 19, 2017 Discussion

Download an outline of the Creed.
Go to the beginning of this study of the Creed.
Download the handout.

Table Talk:  How often do you think about death?  In general?  Of others?  Of your own?
How do you react when you think of death?  Fear?  Sadness?  Panic?  Try to think of something else?

[“Table Talk” is an opening question or topic for discussion at the beginning of our time together.  The intent is to help group members (around tables, with four to six at each table) build connections with each other, as well as to guide thinking in a direction related to the passage.]

Talking about death is awkward and uncomfortable at best.  Since the Creed makes a bold statement about the dead, our group started by considering how we think about and how we react to thoughts about death.

Our group spans an age range from twenties to seventies.  Not surprisingly, that diversity resulted in a variety of responses.  Some thought of the inevitability:  “You never know when.”  Others thought of all the things they want to accomplish.  (The reader can decide which ends of the age-range correspond to those responses.)  The most heartfelt reaction was from a person approximately in the middle of that range of years:  Wondering about the process, would it be painful?  What happens next?  Sleep?  Consciousness?  Oblivion?  Heaven?  The summary of those concerns was offered by another member:  “Anxiety about the unknown.”

Discussing death was not intended to be morbid or depressing.  “Before we can understand the true meaning and significance of the resurrection, we need to wrestle with the terror and tyranny of death.”[1]  Our appreciation of resurrection, Christ’s and ours, needs the weight and depth of the meaning of death.  We are eager to jump to verses and creeds about the resurrection.  If ancient Christians cringed at the word “crucified” (as we discussed last week), today we are more likely to cringe at “dead and buried.”

The Center of the Center

Karl Barth commented on the structure of the Creed:  “Having characterised the second Article [“I believe in Jesus Christ”] as the centre of the whole Creed, we shall have to call the clauses that deal with the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ the centre within this centre.[2]

We can follow Barth’s suggestion and look at the second section or “article” of the Creed, the part about Jesus Christ, in between the section on the Father and the section on the Holy Spirit.  (Remember the structure of the Creed grows out of the essential belief in the Triune God.)

I believe in Jesus Christ,
His only Son, our Lord.
….He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
….….and born of the Virgin Mary.
….….….He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
….….….….was crucified, died, and was buried.
….….….….He descended to the dead.
….….….On the third day he rose again.
….….He ascended into heaven
….and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

At the center of the center is death.  The statements in the Creed about the second Person of the Trinity can also be viewed as a pattern of descent and ascent, with “He descended to the dead” at the lowest point:

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He ascended into heaven  and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again.
He descended to the dead.

We discussed what that puzzling phrase might mean, “He descended to the dead.”  Was it hell?  Was it separation from God?  Could it have a “spiritualized” meaning, “He descended to the spiritually dead people on the earth,” i.e. the Incarnation?  Whatever it means, what would Christ be doing there?

Where did Jesus go (or did He)?


In order to discuss the meaning of “He descended to the dead” in the Creed, we need to consider the vocabulary of the Bible and of the ancient church.  This part of our discussion began with one of the members commenting that he grew up saying, “He descended to hell.”

Four words need consideration.  Our English word “hell” is generally a translation of the Greek gehenna, γέεννα, as in Matthew 5:22, “the hell of the fire.”  Gehenna (hell) is clearly a place of punishment (Matthew 10:28).  Another Greek word, hades, ᾅδης is a translation from Hebrew sheol, שְׁא֣וֹל, which is essentially the place of the dead, as in Psalm 18:4-5.  Sheol is used more times in Psalms than any other book, usually translated as “grave” or “the pit” and often simply transliterated as “sheol.”  The implication is always some kind of separation (not necessarily eternal) from God, such as Psalm 6:5, “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?”

A summary of the four words might be helpful:

  • Gehenna (Grk.)
    • Hell (Eng.) – Matthew 5:22; Luke 12:5
  • Sheol (Heb.) – Psalm 49:15; Proverbs 15:11
    • Hades (Grk.) – Matthew 11:23; Luke 16:23; Revelation 1:18

So why do (or did) some churches recite this line in the Creed as “He descended to hell”?  The main reason is that we really don’t have a word for “hades” in English.  Originally, the English word “hell” was translated for the Greek word hades.  But English (like all languages) has changed over the centuries.  J. I. Packer explains clearly:

The English is misleading, for “hell” has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed.  Originally “hell” meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol.  That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, “thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades” (so RSV: AV has “hell”), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27-31).  But since the seventeenth century “hell” has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name is Gehenna. What the Creed means, however, is that Jesus entered, not Gehenna, but Hades-that is, that he really died, and that it was from a genuine death, not a simulated one, that he rose.[1]


Once we have a better understanding of the vocabulary used in the Creed, history will be helpful.  The Creed went through several revisions, and the phrase “he descended into hades” did not appear until AD 390.[2]  It was included in the “official” (Roman Catholic) version of the Apostles’ Creed in the ninth century.[3]

Some churches that use the Creed omit the phrase completely.  Others use “hell” or “the dead.”  Some contemporary theologians (for example, Wayne Grudem) suggest the phrase should be removed from the Creed completely.[4]

Yet there is clear evidence that the ancient church believed something about Christ’s descent.  “Irenaeus [d. 202] reports a tradition he received from a certain presbyter [Polycarp, a follower of John the Evangelist] who allegedly knew the apostles and delivered to him this tradition about the descent… Here we have a very early tradition deriving from the immediate postapostolic period that already knows how the various pieces of Scripture point to the descent of Christ to the realm of the dead.”[5]

Whatever we might think of the statement in the Creed, it is what the ancient church believed:  “He descended into hades.”


Whatever we learn from the vocabulary of the languages and whatever the ancient church teaches us, the most important question is, as always, “what does the Bible say?”  Two New Testament passages seem to provide at least hints of a descent by Christ:  1 Peter 3:13-4:6 and Ephesians 4:1-16.  The available time for the group limited our discussion to the passage in 1 Peter.

The 1 Peter text certainly seems to refer to a “descent” (“to the spirits in prison” in 3:19, and “to those who are dead” in 4:6).  Beyond that, however, things get a bit complicated.

“The meaning of the phrase [verse 19] is much disputed.”[6]
– Wayne Grudem, theologian

“His words were no doubt clear to those who first heard them, but they have been hard for later generations to understand.”[7]
– Edmund Clowney, seminary president and pastor

“A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”[8]
– Martin Luther

The consensus:  This is a difficult passage.  With about forty minutes, our group did the best we could.  There was some discussion about the identity of the “spirits” in v. 19.  There is the possibility that Peter meant fallen angels, but the reference to Noah’s work on earth and the disobedience around him seems to indicate the spirits were the disembodied spirits or souls of persons who had died.  That understanding is consistent with the ancient understanding of sheol or hades as a place of the dead.  Peter says that Jesus preached to them, but v. 19 doesn’t say what He preached.  One person raised a question about the description of Jesus as “made alive in the spirit” – wasn’t He always (ever from eternity and during the incarnation) alive in the spirit?  Perhaps Peter is referring to the fact that when He died on the cross, He remained alive spiritually.  The contrast with His dead flesh is emphasized.  Because He was alive “in the spiritual realm”[9] He was able to preach directly to the spirits in prison.

One member of our group asked a logical question, “Was this a second chance for those who had been disobedient in their earthly life?”  Verse 19 doesn’t say what Jesus preached.  Was it an offer of salvation?  Was it condemnation for the way they lived their lives?  It doesn’t seem to indicate any hint of a second chance, whatever He was preaching.

The second related comment in the passage in 4:6 is more explicit:  “the gospel was preached.”  More also is said about the response to the preaching, that “they might live in the spirit the way God does.”  Perhaps these were the righteous dead, those like Abraham who had believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).  Even though their earthly lives were imperfect (v. 6b, “judged in the flesh”) as we all are, their faith was accepted by God.  The righteous dead heard the clear gospel and responded.

Peter may have been describing two different groups and two different proclamations made by Jesus when He “descended to the dead.”  The unrighteous and unbelieving dead did not respond to whatever He said to them.  The believing, righteous dead were eagerly awaiting His saving work.  As one member of our group commented, “He opened the door of sheol.”

The passage may not be completely clear (to us or to Luther).  Like other parts of God’s Self-revelation in the Bible, what is not clear is also not essential for salvation.  We can (and I believe should) dig into these kinds of difficult passages as much as we can, to learn as much as we can about God with clarity and precision to know Him and His work better.  But we, like Luther and many others, can also recognize our human limitations in knowledge of Him.

More Theological Gobbledygook?

Since we have such limitations in our knowledge, what is the benefit of studying such as passage?  Is there any practical value?

He conquered death for Himself and also for those He rescued, those He enabled to “live in the spirit the way God does.”  The power of His resurrection extends even as far as sheol.  It includes us in this life as well.

“He descended to the dead.” What does this mean? It is a statement of the belief that Jesus really did die. For the New Testament writers, Christ was not raised “from death” (an abstract idea) but “from the dead” (Acts 2:24; Romans 1:4; Colossians 2:12). The Greek term literally means “out of those who are dead.”[10]

McGrath’s detailed distinction between “death” as an abstract idea and the “dead” as a group of persons who were once alive is essential.  Jesus was not addressing a philosophical concept but a fundamental human fear.  “The dead” will one day include each of us (unless He returns first).  That makes this a very personal doctrine.  A further distinction in Scripture is also helpful.  The English phrase “from the dead” could represent at least two different Greek constructions.

  • apo, από – “away from” the dead ones
  • ek, έκ – “out from” the dead ones

In the New Testament, the overwhelming majority of references to being raised from the dead use ek, the emphasis on being raised out of or out from those who are dead.  Jesus was not just near the dead or in the neighborhood, He was in among them.  He experienced human death just as fully as they did.

It’s Gonna Be OK

McGrath continues:

In other words, Jesus shared the fate of all those who have died. Again, we find the same point being stressed: Jesus really was human like us. His divinity does not compromise his humanity. Being God incarnate did not mean he was spared from tasting death. He did not merely seem to die; he really did die and joined those who had died before him. And in the glorious act of resurrection, God raised him from the dead![11]

As one member of our group paraphrased McGrath’s words, “It’s gonna be OK.”  When we think about death, we should be encouraged by His victory over death, His own death and all those He has rescued.  We can see God’s bigger story to ease our fears over death as well as all our struggles:

“If you focus more on the smaller story of your life from your natural birth to your natural death, you will misunderstand everything that matters.  You’ll mistake your joys and sorrows for the fullness of real joy that lies ahead and real sorrows that you’ll never experience….But when you hear the Master Storyteller tell His story, a shift happens in the center of your heart.  You pause in the middle of terrific blessings or terrible trials, or maybe just everyday life, and you say, ‘So that’s what life is all about!'”[12]

This is an example of seeing beyond this life and beyond even our imminent death.  For a Christian, joys and struggles, good things and hard things should not define our lives.  Seeing God’s bigger story about what He is doing and what He has planned will help us see “the joy set before us,” our eternally increasing delight in knowing Him forever, the anticipation that enables endurance.

John Owen, a Puritan in the seventeenth-century knew something about God’s bigger story.  Near the end of his life he said, “The long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world.”[13]  The more we see of God’s glory in this life through Scripture, prayer, fellowship, meditation, etc. the more we will understand and experience Owen’s excitement and even passion.  Knowing God and anticipating our joy with Him does not eliminate the struggles we face.  It may not even lessen or ease them.  But the more deeply and clearly we know Him the more our anticipation will enable our endurance.

[1] J. I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed (Wheaton, Illinois:  Crossway Books, 2008), 86-87.

[2] Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted:  the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee:  Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 1592.

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 48.

[4] Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture instead of the Apostles’ Creed,” JETS 34 (1991): 103.  Referenced in Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan, 2016), 147;  Kindle Edition location 2358

[5] Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan, 2016), 147;  Kindle Edition location 2369.

[6] Wayne Grudem, “1 Peter” in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 1988), 156.

[7] Edmund Clowney, “The Message of 1 Peter” in The Bible Speaks Today series (Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 1988), 156.

[8] Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistles of Peter (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Kregel Publications, 1982), 168.

[9] Wayne Grudem, “1 Peter” in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 1988), 156.

[10] Alistair McGrath, “I Believe” – Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Downers Grove, Illinois:  IVP Books, 1997), 62.

[11] Alistair McGrath, “I Believe” – Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Downers Grove, Illinois:  IVP Books, 1997), 62.

[12] Larry Crabb, Real Church (Nashville, Tennessee:  Thomas Nelson, 2009), 164-165.

[13] Quoted by John Piper, “Communing with God in the Things for Which We Contend” in Contending For Our All (Wheaton, Illinois:  Crossway Books, 2006), 112.  The audio and text of the sermon are available at http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-chief-design-of-my-life-mortification-and-universal-holiness


[1] Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan, 2016), 150;  Kindle Edition location 2411.

[2] Karl Barth, Credo (Eugene, Oregon:  Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005), 83; Kindle Edition Location 1185.

One thought on “…He descended to the dead… February 19, 2017 Discussion

  1. Pingback: …I believe in the Holy Spirit… March 19, 2017 Discussion | Good Not Safe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *