Jesus' purported descent into hell has long been the subject of disagreement between Christians. Its presence in the Apostles' Creed points to a long-standing, lively, and ultimately inconclusive discussion on the theme of Jesus' post-crucifixion activities.

Christians first recited the Creed not as a statement of belief, but as a baptismal confession. Much as liturgical churches now pose questions in confirmation ceremonies, the ancient churches asked candidates for baptism three questions about the Trinity. From this came the Apostles' "Symbol" —or "sign" identifying with the community in baptism—and eventually the Creed in its current wording.

The Creed, then, was not set from its beginning, but fluid. The oldest extant version comes from Bishop Marcellus of Ancyra (ca. A.D. 337), and it does not contain the clause about descending into hell. Scholars call this version "The Old Roman Form"—the earliest creed of the Roman church.

Apparently the clause first appeared in the East with Sirmium's fourth formula in 359—also called the "Dated Creed"— though the Eastern church rejected it as tinged with Arianism. The first mention of the descent in the West occurs in the writings of Rufinus of Aquileia, who included it in his baptismal creed around 400. Over time, the Latin church appropriated it as well, officially integrating it into the Creed in 750.

Christians have long been troubled over what the descent actually means. Augustine, for example, believed Christ literally descended into hell. But in his letter to Evodius, he admits several uncertainties over the meaning of 1 Peter 3:19, which says that Jesus preached to those "spirits in prison" who had been disobedient in Noah's day. If "prison" equals "hell," then why, Augustine wonders, should these people be singled out for such an honor, and who, if anyone, did Christ save with his preaching in hell? Further, Jesus could not have come only to take the "righteous men" from hell, for were they not already separated from the condemned, as demonstrated in the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16? Augustine does not attempt to resolve the matter, but openly admits his perplexity.

Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas resolved Augustine's problem by saying Christ descended to two places—hell and purgatory—and that his purpose in each was different. In hell, he put unbelievers to shame, while in purgatory, he gave sinners hope for glory and the righteous deliverance. But this explanation did not satisfy all. Martin Luther, though he believed Christ descended to hell, would offer no clear cut explanation for the event. John Calvin went so far as to describe the descent as symbolic, pointing to Christ's suffering at Gethsemane and the cross.

And the debate continued. Nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff deemed the translation "descended into hell" unfortunate and misleading. "We do not know whether Christ was in hell," he wrote, "but we do know from His own lips that He was in Paradise between His death and resurrection. The term Hades is much more comprehensive than Hell (Gehenna) which is confined to the state of the lost."

Clearly there are unacceptable readings, such as preacher Kenneth Copeland's claim that it was Jesus' descent to hell, not his death on the cross, that redeemed sinners. But most proposed solutions have little bearing on the essentials of Christian faith. Such puzzles will always be with us, providing fodder for speculation and debate, but admitting of no definitive solution this side of heaven.

* For a concise overview of the historic development of the Creed and the doctrine of the descent, look up "Apostle's Creed" and "Harrowing of Hell" in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd ed.(Garland, 1997). Also, consult the entry "Descent into Hell" in the Encyclopedia of the Early Church (Oxford University Press, 1992).

* Read Augustine's letter to Evodius online and Aquinas' reflections.

* To listen in on the current debate, check out two sites, one favorable to the descent: and one more skeptical.

Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator for Christian History