The Apostles' Creed: He descended into Hell
Perhaps the phrase that gets stuck in the throat when reciting the Apostle’s Creed is “He (Christ) descended into hell.” And if it does, it wouldn’t surprise me. It was difficult for John Calvin to utter the phrase despite having used the Apostle’s Creed to formulate his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Nor was he able to leave it without comment. He argued that Christ’s descent into hell happened on the cross prior to His death. Perhaps you explain it in similar fashion. But have you ever wondered why this affirmation exists at all?
Perhaps you will remember that the Apostle’s Creed was used to oppose the docetic teaching of Marcion and others like him. The docetists believed that matter was bad and therefore Jesus only seemed to have a material body. Therefore, as I mentioned in the introduction to this series, in order to oppose this false teaching the church made additions to the Creed, then called the Roman Symbol. Thus, it was in response to the error of the docetists that the phrase was added to the creed.
But there is something that we need to keep in mind. The original phrase in the Roman Symbol did not say, “He descended into hell.” It said that Christ descended into the nether world, or Sheol, that is, the grave. The whole point of the addition was to affirm not Christ’s descent into hell but Christ’s physical death. In other words, the physical death of Christ needed to be emphasized in the face of docetists who were saying that Christ didn’t have a body that could die. In fact, some second century versions of the Roman symbol substituted “dead” for “descended to the netherworld.” Clearly the creed was formed and used to battle the docetists who denied the humanity of Christ. Consequently, this phrase, now rendered “descended into hell” was originally meant to teach of the bodily death of Christ.
So, with that understanding, let’s fast forward to the fourth century. By this time, there were several forms of what we know as the Apostle’s Creed floating around the church. And a man by the name of Rufinus in 395 AD wrote a commentary on one of those creeds called the Aquilian Creed. In fact, Rufinus is where we get the idea that the creed had apostolic origins. In his commentary, he claimed that each apostle contributed a phrase and called it the Symbol. Now, all of this is quite wrong. As we have already learned the creed had its beginning in Rome about 50 years or more after the death of the last apostle.
But Rufinus did something else that forever changed our understanding of what is known as the Apostle’s Creed. He changed the words of the creed regarding the descent clause. Instead of using the word for lower regions or grave he used the word for hell. He even admits the change in wording saying, But it should be known that the clause, “He descended into Hell,” is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches.” He doesn’t hide it. And from that point on the early church began to understand this creedal affirmation in a whole new manner. However, having this historical understanding, we agree with the earlier composers of the Creed. Jesus humanity was true humanity and his death a real death that through His death and resurrection I might live.
Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.
 Cf. Institutes II.16.8-12.