Door to Hell - Darvaza gas crater, a perfect image to capture what we think of when we think of hell

“He Descended into Hell:” What does that mean?

Have you ever sat down and read some of the creeds of the Christian faith?

I’ve recently been looking at the Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest that has been preserved for us. It’s amazing to how the early church distilled the essentials of Christian doctrine:

  • An early formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity (“I believe in God the Father . . . and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son . . . I believe in the Holy Ghost”).
  • The distinction of the creator from His creation (“Maker of heaven and earth”). Jesus’ virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection on the third day.
  • And in the middle of it, there’s this odd line: “He descended into hell.”

Some years ago, the meaning of this last line came up when we were visiting some old friends for dinner. They attended a church that recited the creed as part of its liturgy. Our friend found he couldn’t recite this portion. The idea of Jesus going to Hell didn’t make sense and he wondered if I could explain. So I started to see what I could find out.

Because I didn’t attend a church that emphasized the creeds, and because I didn’t grow up in church, I didn’t really have much knowledge of the background of them. But I did (and still do) have researching superpowers! So, I started trying to find an answer.

And a possible one I found in J. I. Packer’s little book, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed.

What “he descended into hell” might mean

While it should be acknowledged that this line appears to be a later addition to the creed, in addressing its meaning, Packer made two assertions:

  • First, the creedal statement is based on an extremely difficult verse to interpret: 1 Peter 3:18-20.1
  • Second, our confusion over the meaning of this line is, in part, a translation issue. He wrote:

The English is misleading, for “hell” has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed. Originally “hell” meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol. That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, “thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades” (so RSV: av has “hell”), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27-31). But since the seventeenth century “hell” has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name is Gehenna. What the Creed means, however, is that Jesus entered, not Gehenna, but Hades—that is, that he really died, and that it was from a genuine death, not a simulated one, that he rose.

In other words, one must be careful to avoid speculation on the precise meaning of a difficult text. Basically, at a minimum, in this line, the creed could be saying that Jesus really died. He didn’t fake it as some suggest, such as proponents of the swoon theory—that he merely passed out on the cross, and people thought he was dead.2

But the truth is, we don’t entirely know for sure what it means in its entirety. There’s undoubtedly to it than just saying that Jesus died, but there’s not less. But in the end, it reminds us that Jesus’s death matters. On that, there can be no debate. Here’s Packer again;

What makes Jesus’ entry into Hades important for us is not, however, any of this, but simply the fact that now we can face death knowing that when it comes we shall not find ourselves alone. He has been there before us, and he will see us through.

Because Jesus has conquered death, it no longer has power over us. Christ’s victory is complete and we need not fear. “He has been there before us, and he will see us through.”


Originally published January 18, 2012. Updated April 8, 2023 for style & content. Photo by Ybrayym Esenov on Unsplash.

  1. The interpretation issue takes a bit too much time to unpack in a short article like this, but here’s a good article addressing it at TGC. ↩︎
  2. Incidentally, here’s a great clip of Matt Chandler’s reaction to that theory. ↩︎

14 thoughts on ““He Descended into Hell:” What does that mean?”

  1. Aaron, I think the better explanation is that the earliest versions of the creed did not contain that line (337ish) and it was added later. If you study the controversy it was around Arianism so rejected by most as fallacious. None of the early fathers that I know of speak of Christ literally burning in hell, and the few later fathers mention Hades as compared to Jonah in the whale. So it is at least a valid position to see Hades as “death” but I think this isn’t the best interpretation. For one thing it is very redundant, since the creed already says directly he “Died and was buried”. There is a flow downward, so saying “Hades” means death is adding a line already used. Anyway that’s my take.

    brent

  2. Hello Aaron, Thanks for sharing these wonderful insights.  I grew up reciting the Apostle’s Creed but it wasn’t until much later in my Christian life that I really began thinking about the meaning of that part “He descended into hell.”  Packer’s interpretation put a whole different spin on this but I (like the others) certainly find it helpful and plausible.  Blessings!

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  4. powerful quote to end with and I appreciate how you focused on the main thing. By the way, I wanted to email you a question but was having trouble finding your contact info. Please let me know what would be best. Thank you!

  5. I memorized that line in the Apostle’s Creed in my youth, was startled to see it later removed, and am pleased to see it restored now.  It is truth.  I will not blame Wiki for a lack of resource, nor do I agree with splitting the difference in language that Packer concludes.

    This is a most mysterious three days to contemplate, if you are a Christian. 
    I will get to the Hell descend in a moment.  What else goes on here in three days?

    In the Garden, He told Mary not to “touch Him” for He had not yet gone to the Father.
    Thomas would be the first to touch in the Upper Room, as a result of unbelief.
    But, the thief on the Cross next to Christ asked to go with Jesus.
    Christ replied “THIS DAY you will be WITH ME in Paradise”. (That would be Friday, eh?)
    Now, He either DID go to the Father (making the garden statement with Mary curious) or, the Father is not in Paradise….allowing Christ to “not yet gone to the Father”.

    I believe the descended into HELL is correct, but not by Packer’s reasoning.
    Broadly, it originates in Genesis.  Adam and Eve have dominion and authority over the Earth.
    That is established.
    Soon, the serpent usurps that authority, and the First Couple are banished from the Garden.
    Who has the authority now?   Satan!

    When Christ was in the desert prior to ministry time, Satan came to him to tempt, claiming satan would give Christ authority over all if he would bow to satan.  Christ declined. Why?
    Jesus knew already that He would descend into Hell and meet satan on his own turf, minister to the captives, and do one more thing.

    Peter has been promised the keys to the Kingdom…..the keys and authority, that like ALL authority belong to Christ.  But Christ has given YOU authority to cast out demons and serpents and nothing will harm you…Luke 10;17-ish off the top of my head.  AND, Christ gave the authority to forgive sins, or retain sins, and it would be bound in Heaven (where true authority resides) as on Earth.  Think of it as like the authority Herod had.  It was all derived in Rome.

    But to give Peter the keys to the Kingdom (authority), He first had to retrieve them from the one who had them and took them as a thief…..from Adam, namely Satan.  So He descended into Hell, stood on satan’s neck and said : “Give Me the keys NOW.  I’ll be needing them in a few days for Pete”. (roughly).

    This gets even richer afterwards, for Peter is clearly noted as number one, having authority.
    I will not open a Protestant/Catholic debate, but for this audience, I will note that one in direct lineage to Peter,  Pope John XXIII in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s said this about the Church:
    “We are not on the Earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life”.
    He then promptly called a Council (Vatican II) and uprooted the church out of centuries of form and doctrine and ritual….and gave it a chance to bloom in full anew.
    How did he do that? 
    Pete has given the keys to the kingdom to another, and they have been handed down since.

    Christ had to descend into Hell to get the usurped authority (keys to the Kingdom) from satan.
    Quibbling Gehenna and Hades seems moot to me.

    Best post in a long time,  Aaron. 
    Regards to Emily and the “blooming family”.

    1. I have always read and believed that Satan was, contrary to popular myth, resident in hell as some kind of torturer of souls, but rather here on earth (and, on occasion, somehow meeting with God as in Job), and that hell was as much a place of eternal torment for him as for us…

      1. I totally agree, Ben.  I have noted satan in the Garden above (on Earth).
        Job is another spot.  But in the context of this post…He descended into Hell….
        a closer look is needed.

        First, only God is omnipresent (everywhere at once) and omniscient ( He can read our minds; Jesus did this all over the New testament Gospels).

        Second, the ONLY ones to consistently recognize Jesus as God in the Gospels are the demonic; including satan.  

        Third, “17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
         18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

        When satan fell from Heaven, fully 1/3 of the angels went with him.  This is good news since fully 2/3 remain on our side in this galactic battle. But note! Satan resided in Heaven, Earth, and Hell.  Only ONE place will be eternal for him.

        Fourth, James 4:7 tells us our response regarding satan:”Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”  Resist him HOW? Even Michael, the strongest archangel, told Daniel his prayer had been answered on the FIRST day, but it took three weeks to get a reply through the galactic battle in the heavens. (preventing God’s answer to Daniel’s prayer getting through). 
        A sole man cannot defeat satan; Christ already has.  
        He is a roaring lion, but defanged at the Cross.

        Fifth, was satan involved even in the Cross?  You bet!
        “As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him,”
        (John 13:27)

        On Thursday night, at the Last Supper, Satan was THERE!
        Satan knew he would defeat Christ in the next 24 hours if everything went according to his plan.  It did; Christ was crucified. Satan was sure victory was his with God dead.

        Then, the most powerful moment in all history arrives; He descended into Hell.  Satan can not be everywhere at once.
        His growing legions listen to what you say to learn where you are vulnerable to attack. (they can’t read your mind). But the reason to descend into Hell could only be to confront satan where he was…celebrating his “victory” over God, finally.
        What a shock to find Christ in your “pentagon-like headquarters”, Hell. All authority satan held was removed from him PRIOR to Resurrection. The Resurrection overcame the wages of sin (death).  Death was always satan’s plan. Life was always God’s plan.
        Since HE came back; we can come back….those who believe.  The Resurrection topped the descending into Hell, for now, death is no longer final. Satan, at that moment, was defeated.  Everything since is God’s plan to populate Heaven. In all time, less than 10 billion souls have been created. Some for Heaven; some for hell.  Only God knows how long this will go on (Christ said only the Father knows).

        Christ returned to the Father and sits at the right hand.
        He gave authority that the Father gave to Adam, satan took away, and Christ took from satan (in Hell celebrating), and gave that authority to man once again….giving Peter the Keys to the kingdom.

        My struggle?  God is everywhere. Hell is part of everywhere. Therefore, God is in Hell too. Why?  I am sure this is a non sequitur….but I cannot figure it out.

        Last, as for resisting satan, James says DO IT, but not how.
        Read Ephesians 6: 10-20 to know HOW to resist satan using the full Armor of God.  Those verses are an easy 12 POSTS , or 500 comments. A tip!  Every piece of Armor is Jesus Christ!  Even the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Remember….the WORD was made flesh.  😀

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  7. Thanks for sharing this Aaron! In the church I attend we recite the Apostle’s Creed right after the song portion of the service and right after one of our elders prays for the service. When I was looking into the origins of The Apostle’s Creed on my own and came upon the discussions of this part I was very confused initially, but those who offer explanations like J.I. Packer help to put this aspect of the atonement into great perspective. It makes me appreciate the work of Christ all the more.

  8. Hmmm – it’s difficult to type a well thought-out response when Wikipedia is closed in protest over SOPA 😉

    I seem to remember hearing that this was one of the more contested lines in the Creed, although I certainly see the merit in Packer’s interpretation. 

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