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 this refers to a descent by Jesus into the realm of the dead between his death and resurrection, and an actual preaching to its occupants, either offering salvation to them or declaring his own triumph over death and judgment upon those who in their earthly life did not respond to God. This interpretation, however, seems in conflict with the rest of Jesus' life and ministry—and with the context of the passage, which emphasizes a faithful, gentle witness, giving a reason for one's faith, even in the face of opposition . At the same time, the non-literal interpretation has difficulty accounting adequately for the reference to Noah , unless the preaching was restricted only to people from Noah's time, which seems strange. It also appears to conflict with the theological context, or how our interpretation fits with other, more clearly established doctrines. Here we encounter biblical references teaching the finality of death over and against any opportunity for salvation, at least since the time of Christ.

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Many consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) pertinent to the question, as are much of Psalm 49 and Revelation 20:11-15. Hebrews 9:27 indicates a close linkage between death and judgment, with nothing mentioned as intervening. And Jesus' statement to the thief on the cross—"today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42,43)—also is relevant.

One other interpretation, held by Augustine and defended strongly by several evangelicals, seems more promising. In this view, Christ preached "in spirit" through Noah as Noah built the ark. This was a message of repentance and righteousness, given to unbelieving people who were then on earth but now are "spirits in prison" (i.e., in hell).

While this reference to spirits in prison is not completely natural, this view fits better with the other considerations. It also is supported by 1 Peter 1:10-12, which speaks of the Spirit of Christ in the prophets who spoke. While none of the interpretations is totally without difficulty, one might conclude that this is the most adequate reading of the relevant data.

Robert Mounce, in his commentary Living Hope, says that the 1 Peter 3:18-20 passage is "widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament." Even if one holds that Jesus did descend into hell to offer salvation to those who had lived on earth before him, this special effort does not apply to those who lived and died later.

There is one thing of which we can be certain: Jesus' death was a literal event, not some temporary state of unconsciousness. Hence, in his resurrection, Christ did indeed conquer death—both in its spiritual and physical forms.

Bible-believing Christians can allow themselves to differ on the nature of Jesus' descent into hell. Some will be able to recite this part of the Apostles' Creed with conviction, while others may choose to remain silent.Millard J. Erickson is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.

Related Elsewhere

Millard Erickson also answered the question "Is Hell Forever?" in Bibliotheca Sacra.

Erickson's Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism was discussed in a recent Christianity Today article by John G. Stackhouse Jr.

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The article, "The Perils of Left and Right | Evangelical theology is much bigger and richer than our two-party labels," appeared in the August 10, 1998 issue of our print magazine.Earlier "Good Question" columns include:

  • Are Christians Required to Tithe?
  • Is Revelation Prophecy or History?
  • You're Divorced-Can You Remarry?
  • If Grace Is Irresistible, Why Evangelize?
  • If I'm an Evangelical, What Am I?
  • A Cracked Code
  • Committing the Unforgivable Sin
  • What Bible Version Did Jesus Read?
  • Did God Die on the Cross?
  • You Must Be Born Again-but at What Age?
  • Was the Revolutionary War Justified?
  • Can the Dead Be Converted?
  • Cloaked in Mystery
  • Is Hell Forever?
  • Denominations: Divided We Stand
  • Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?
  • Do Demons Have Zip Codes?
  • Doubting Thomas's Gospel

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