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"He Descended into Hell"
Sheol, Hell, and the Dead

Dennis Bratcher and Jirair Tashjian

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 Christian tradition.

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).

The "imprisoned 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 2:10.

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 as follows:

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 lives.

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 later 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.

The 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.

Notes

1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., Part One, 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]

-Dennis Bratcher and Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher
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