He Descended into Hades
Many of us recite the Apostles’ Creed during our Sunday worship services to profess our faith and to affirm our membership in the universal Body of Christ. But we are puzzled by that short statement in the middle of the Creed, “He descended into Hades.” Where did it come from? What does it mean?
Some Protestants object to this statement. They remove it from the creed or remain silent during that part.
“He descended into Hades” is a teaching of the early Church that is traditionally called “the harrowing of hell.” It is the belief that Jesus, at some point between his death and resurrection, went to the abode of the dead, the place that the Old Testament writers call Sheol (Hebrew) and the New Testament writers call Hades (Greek). Hades has been rendered in many English translations as “hell.”
That word “hell” conjures up images of fiery eternal torment which are consistent with Gehenna, the other Greek word appearing in the gospels which is also translated as “hell.” Because of these associations, many are led to think that “He descended into hell” means that Jesus descended into a place of punishment where he continued to suffer even after his death. That would seem to contradict what Jesus said to the thief on the cross, ““I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). So to many Protestants, the harrowing of hell is a teaching that seems, at best, puzzling and unnecessary, and at worst, unbiblical.
Not so for the Eastern Orthodox. For Orthodox believers, the harrowing of hell plays a key role in their understanding of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection.
In the Orthodox view, Jesus did not descend into hell to suffer the consequences of human sin. He entered hell as a triumphant conqueror to break the chains of those who, since the time of Adam, had been faithfully waiting and hoping for God’s promised salvation. The highlight of Orthodox Holy Week services is the Great Pascha or Vigil which begins very late Saturday night and extends into the wee hours of Sunday morning, witnessing the resurrection of Christ. The service culminates with the singing of a beautiful and very ancient hymn known as the Pascal Troparion:
There is a fascinating book that can tell you everything that you ever wanted to know about the harrowing of hell. The book is Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev. I have skimmed through this book but not yet read through it carefully, so I will not attempt to give a review. Nevertheless, I have learned a few things that may be of interest to those who are wondering how to deal with that puzzling statement in the Apostles’ Creed.
First, Christ’s descent into hell can be found in Scripture. When I say it can be found in Scripture, I am not saying that the Bible definitively proves that Christ descended into hell. Rather, I am merely stating the fact that Christians from various times and traditions have found evidence for it in Scripture. Perhaps the best known reference is that cryptic passage in 1 Peter 3:18-20:
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
Another reference is found in the Apostle Peter’s evangelistic message on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:25-28), in which he quotes from Psalm 16:8-11 and applies it to Jesus:
I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.
(Note that the old NIV says, “you will not abandon me to the grave.” The quotation above from the NIV 2011 says “you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead” seems to be a more accurate rendering, because the Hebrew word Sheol used by the psalmist does not merely refer to the grave, but to the underworld abode of the souls of the dead.)
Those two passages may be the most direct Scriptural evidence for a descent into hell, but there are many more passages which have been seen by some Christians to be related to it. Matthew 27:51-53 mentions some startling events that took place in the moments after Jesus’ death:
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Some have understood this resurrection to be the result of Christ arriving in Hades and loosening the chains of the dead. Others have seen evidence in Isaiah 9:2:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
Second, a belief in the harrowing of hell apears to have been widespread in the early church. Church fathers held a variety of opinions about what Jesus accomplished by his descent into Hades, and they differed over many of its theological implications. But Archbishop Alfeyev quotes extensively from the fathers, Christian apocrypha, ancient poetry and hymnody to support the view that, as a whole, the early Christians did believe that Christ entered the underworld.
Did Jesus descend into Hades? Many in the early church believed that he did.
What did Jesus do down there? I really don’t know.
When I see Jesus face to face, this is one of the many questions I intend to ask him. Until then, I’m happy to let it remain a mystery as I recite those words from the Apostles’ Creed.