Did You Ever Wonder... about the Apostles' Creed?

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Someone just asked me, “why do we say that Jesus went to hell in the Apostles’ Creed”? I thought that perhaps this would be the best opportunity and place to discuss this.

If you ever look in the Lutheran Book of Worship, there is an asterisk next to that phrase, and in small, tiny print, it says, “or, descended to the dead.”

I wonder sometimes if we have made “hell” such a big image in our world that we should go back to saying it in the way of the small print.

The earliest version we have of the Apostles’ Creed using the word “hell” is in the 3rd century, most likely quite a while after it was first written. In that time, and as recently as the 16th century, “hell” didn’t mean the final place where lost souls go. “Hell” was simply a generic term for the afterlife, a place of joy for some and torment for others. In this way, it can be seen as a general term for both those in heaven and those in, well, hell.

So if this was the understanding of those who put that saying there, “I believe that he descended into hell” for them simply means “Jesus went to the place of the dead”. Which he did, as he went to the afterlife.

Now, as this is the traditional Lutheran understanding, I do want to tell you that there are other voices that believe that after he died, Jesus went to hell and saved those who were there, including all those in the Old Testament that couldn’t believe in him since he wasn’t on earth at the time. Specifically, they point to 1 Peter 3 as this, where it says that “he made proclamation to the spirits in prison”. Some, such as your pastor, interpret this in a symbolic sense, because “lost spirits in prison” could definitely also mean those in this world (think about how many times you have heard someone referred to as a “lost soul”).

Trinity Church