The chances are that you have heard of the Apostles’ Creed. In fact, you may have seen the creed, reached the line, “he descended to hell” and thought “nope.” This reaction is quite ordinary, understandable, and has led to more than a few individuals feeling like they couldn’t adopt this creed. More perplexing is when one discovers that Christendom has almost unanimously accepted the Apostles’ creed as being what it sounds like – the teaching of the Apostles. So what is the deal?

In truth, the origins of the Apostles Creed (in its final form) are debated. Early Christian tradition says it was penned by the apostles themselves, while the historical evidence suggests there were primitive creeds that shared similar statement, but aren’t identical to the form we know of today. In fact, the form we know today is usually linked to a Latin text of the late 4th century. Nonetheless, Christians have generally agreed that the creed represents a very early articulation of the Christian faith that would be used, and memorized by those seeking baptism. This is what the creed states, 

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
      and born of the virgin Mary.
      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.
      He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the holy catholic (i.e. universal) church,
      the communion of saints,
      the forgiveness of sins,
      the resurrection of the body,
      and the life everlasting. Amen.”

With this all being the case, how can such a sentence, “he descended to hell” be included in the creed? Did early Christians teach that Jesus went into hell as we think of it? Was Jesus suffering in fire and brimstone until he was resurrected? There is no doubt that the term “hell” comes with ideas and difficulties, especially when the notion that Jesus went into hell to suffer for sinners is often associated with the word of faith movement. Despite this, the explanation for the inclusion of this clause into the Apostles’ creed is quite sensical when you get past the language of “hell.”

While we can explain the inclusion, and we will, the history of this particular line is still complicated. From what I understand, this clause isn’t found in any of the versions of the creed prior to the 4th century. Some will even argue that the sentence made its first appearance in the 5th century. Philipp Schaff in his work, “Creeds of Christendom,” points out that even with this inclusion, Christians didn’t understand it as Christ going into hell, but rather, that Christ descended into the grave. Nick Needham states, “in the 5th century another phrase, ‘He descended into Hades,’ was added after ‘died and was buried,’ but a number of great Western theologians rejected this addition. The Greek word Hades is often translated ‘hell’ in English versions of the creed…it really has a wider meaning.” (See: 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 1, p. 109). 

As hinted by Schaff already, “Hades” can be understood as “the grave” or “the realm of the dead.” The term “Hades” would be used in the Greek Translation of the Old Testament to translate the term “sheol” which is essentially the same, the grave or the realm of the dead (see for example Genesis 37:35; 1 Samuel 2:6; Proverbs 15:24). The term was not only used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament (see: Luke 10:15; Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27). Luke 16 is particularly interesting as it illustrates a picture of two chambers (for lack of a better term) in the grave – one of “Abraham’s bosom” and one of outer darkness. In between them we find a chasm where those in outer darkness cannot cross over to the other “chamber.” Being received into “Abraham’s bosom” would signify comfort, and honor, while the rich man’s position in outer darkness is in stark contrast. When modern evangelicals think of “hell,” however, they typically think of the place of final, eternal, judgement where the wicked will be sent. They are right to think of “hell” as being this place, but this place does not exist yet, and will be realized later as described in Revelation (the lake of fire). Thus, at least in our context as I’m not sure what the 16th century context looked like in relation to this topic, it is a bit misleading to translate “Sheol” and/or “hades” as “hell” as the KJV does. Yet, it is argued that this is what is happening within the apostle’s creed – “the grave” is improperly (or misleadingly) being translated as “hell.”

If we read the Apostles’ creed with all this in mind, that “hades” simply means the grave, we can discern that the clause is indeed a biblical statement. Quite fascinating, however, is that I haven’t seen a version of the creed that uses “ᾅδης” (Hades) as Nick Needham states, but rather I have seen claims of the creed in Greek saying, “κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα,” which can be understood as “descended to the lower ones” or “those below.” Additionally, the Latin version of the text would agree with this with descendit ad inferos (“those below”). 

*Note also this is not inferno as in the famous “Dante’s Inferno,” but inferos.

Many scholars seem to connect the two phrases logically and say, “so he descended to the dead” or in essence: Potayto, potahto & tomayto, tomahto. While it bothers me that I haven’t seen “Hades” itself in a Greek version of the creed, I agree with the logic that it is a distinction with little to no difference. Plus, despite my digging, I haven’t come across any type of evidences for either (manuscripts, apparatus, or otherwise). Ultimately, however, whether ᾅδης (Hades) or κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα (descended to the lower ones) is used, we find our hesitations resolved as the creed essentially points out that Jesus actually died for our sins. 

Specifically, we can also see this line of the creed paralleling with 1 Peter 4:6 (and all of its complexities) or with Ephesians 4:9. In fact, Todd Scacewater points out the parallel of the creed with Ephesians 4:9, noting that the differences are only stylistic:

κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα (creed) vs.

κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα (Eph 4:9) 

You can see his full article on the subject here and I highly recommend it. In the article Scacewater also discusses Ephesians 4:9 and whether or not the creed properly represents what Paul penned in that particular text as there are debates as to whether or not Paul is speaking about descent into the grave, the incarnation (descent to the earth), and so on.

Despite this debate, most scholars would agree with Scacewater when he says, 

“Moreover, I suggest ministers use the phrase “he descended to the dead” instead of “he descended into hell.” Neither is entirely literal, but the former is far more conceptually accurate and will further ease the minds of those who recite this line of the creed.” 

While most everything that has been said here could be further debated and discussed, in much more depth and detail, what we ultimately find is that the creed represents a biblical truth that we can affirm.

The creed revised:


“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by 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.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.
      He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the holy catholic (i.e. universal) church,
      the communion of saints,
      the forgiveness of sins,
      the resurrection of the body,
      and the life everlasting. Amen.”


A big thanks to Michael (aka: Honest Youth Pastor) for letting me bug him and bounce thoughts off of him for this post.

3 Responses

  1. Very fascinating article! My church looked at the Apostles creed and the Nicene creed and came to the conclusion to remove that line from our citation of the Apostles creed.

  2. Thanks for this article. I’ve heard the Apostle’s Creed mentioned a few times lately. I don’t think I’ve ever read it until now. I’m glad that it’s short, straight to the point and easy to remember. I’m going to teach it to my family. Thank you for your research on “He descended to hell.” Because I always looked at a person sideways when they said Christ went to hell. Keep living for the gospel, brother! God bless you.

  3. […] is unhelpful and confusing, yet, for whatever reason, we stick with it. For more on that discussion you can check this out, but I would ultimately say, I wish the volume translated the Apostle’s creed as descended to […]

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