The Apostles Creed: He descended into hell
by Mark Grillus
We now examine the most controversial statement of the creed. 4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell. The meaning is not clear. The earliest form of the creed from Marcellus of Ancyra 337A.D. does not list this expression. All of the earliest forms by church fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Novatian, Origen, Gregory, Cyril make no mention of this in their respective form of the creed.
In the Latin form “descended to the dead” descendit ad inferos was changed to “descended into hell” descendit ad inferna. The two Latin words look similar, but have different meanings. It is possible that ad inferos replaced ad inferna as a popular false view was circulating at the time. A brief survey of early church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, and Irenaeus confirms that they understood it as ‘descended to the dead’.
The Westminster Larger Catechism states, “Christ continued in the state of death until his resurrection. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him,” a view also held by some Evangelicals.
John Calvin held that Christ suffered the unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony of hell while on the cross. This view is found in the Heidelberg Catechism.
Historian Philip Schaff stated, “The translation ‘descended into hell’ is unfortunate and misleading.” It would be best to understand this as originally stated, descended to the dead.