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In the Apostles' Creed, there is a statement about Jesus descending into hell. Did he literally go there?—DEBRA BLACK, Alton, IllinoisEach Sunday, millions of Christians around the world recite the Apostles' Creed, including that statement:

"I believe that Jesus … descended into hell."

Yet a few years back at one Christian college, a series of chapel messages on the Apostles' Creed had to omit this item, because none of the 12 professors of Bible and theology believed it. Actually the statement is not found in the earliest form of the Apostles' Creed. It echoes Acts 2:31, and seems to be there simply to make the point that Jesus' death was real and complete. Jesus went to hades, which in the Greek signifies the world of the departed—paradise for some, pain for others. When the Apostles' Creed took its English form in the sixteenth century, "hell" meant hades as such, rather than the final state of the lost (which Jesus called gehenna), as it always is today. So, should those who accept the Bible as their supreme authority for belief hold to the Creed's doctrine on this point?

Scripture tells us very little about Jesus' state between his death and resurrection. The most commonly cited biblical passages are Acts 2:31 ; Ephesians 4:8-10 ; 1 Peter 4:6; and, most importantly, 1 Peter 3:18-20. Ephesians 4 is likely a reference to the Incarnation, and 1 Peter 4:6 could apply to any preaching of the gospel. But numerous interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-20 exist. Some say the 1 Peter 3 passage should not be taken literally—that it is symbolic, conveying in graphic form the idea that redemption is universal in its extent. This, however, involves a more spiritualized hermeneutic than usually practiced by evangelicals.

Others contend that ...

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February 7, 2000

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