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A study of the Apostles Creed


Links to sections on this page:
- Hell
- Resurrection
- What does this mean
- Bible Study
- Questions
Links to other chapters:
1: Why creeds?
2: Why were the creeds written?
3: Studying the Apostles' Creed
4: The Place of Doubt
5: I Believe ...
6: God the Father Almighty...
7: ...And in Jesus Christ His only Son ....
9: ...I believe in the Holy Spirit

Chapter 8

dead and buried. (He descended to hell;) He ascended into the heavens, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. from where he will come to judge the living and the dead.

This final clause in this sequence, 'he descended into hell,' is perhaps the most controversial in the Apostle's Creed. Indeed, some denominations consider it optional or refuse to include it at all. Its first appearance in the Apostles Creed is in AD 570 and it is not found in the Nicene Creed.

It does not help that the subject is clouded by difficulties of translation between Greek, Hebrew and English, but also the fact that at the time it was written, the writer could not have been speaking literally because a three-tier universe is envisaged with heaven up above, hell below and earth in the middle. We now know that the world is not flat.

Dead and buried he descended to hell

Without doubt the Apostles Creed makes the simple point that Jesus was really dead. It was not an illusion. He died and he had a real corpse, that was placed in a tomb. He was not merely unconscious --his spirit left his body and went to the realm of the dead. We must remember that the Jews did not have a fully developed doctrine of life after death. The Hebrew word Sheol means 'the collective abode of the dead', a shadow land where men were ghosts, but with no concept of punishment. Sheol is not Hell and bibles which translate it as such are wrong.

Hades in Greek was also a place of the dead, the home of a person 'House of Hades' and Hades is mentioned in Revelation 6:8 When in the New Testament a place of punishment is intended, the word which is used is Gehenna. Jesus said 'It is better to lose your hand or your eye, than with your whole body to bet thrown into Gehenna.' (Matthew 5:29-30). 'It is not necessary to fear those who can kill the body; it is necessary to fear him who can cast soul and body into Gehenna.' (Matthew 10:20).

Since then Christians have used the words of Jesus to create a feel bad factor. But what did Jesus mean? Jesus used the word Gehenna for Hell. So what or where is Gehenna?

Gehenna is Ge Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. In that valley those who worshipped Moloch had burned their children as offerings. Josiah had stopped this worship and made the Valley of Hinnom desecrated territory. (2 Kings 23:10). It had then become the official rubbish dump, the waste incinerator of Jerusalem. It smouldered continuously and in it a worm bred and multiplied. That valley, a horrible place became the popular idea of hell.

Sheol is a place of the dead, Gehenna is a place of punishment. Hell then became our word for the place for sinners after death. The church has traditionally been guilty of creating a place for itself between people and God as a sort of 'fixer' with the divine, like a heavenly immigration service, it handed out passports to the deserving. Richard Holloway the Bishop of Edinburgh called this the 'theology of the crushed testicles'. This was where the church gained ultimate respect. I feel particularly uncomfortable with the concept of a theology of hell which sees God like a Nazi commandant ordering people to be burned alive continuously in ovens.

I find it remarkable that this doctrine still exists and can only wonder at how Christians can live with themselves and a belief in such a God. I am speaking only from a personal perspective of course, but I do find this to be remote from the Christ of the Gospels one who goes and searches for the sheep which is lost and forcibly taking it back home on his shoulders, whether it wants to be found or not. I would suggest that it is we human beings who in our dark moments like the idea of hell, it appeals to our sense of retribution and anger. However we must not use the words of Jesus to justify this view and the sentence from the Apostles Creed has nothing to do with this kind of hell.

Many ideas have followed this phrase. There developed the idea of the 'Harrowing of Hell' Jesus invaded hell and destroyed the power of death and sin. The Devil was overthrown. Others believe that the descent into hell accounts for the problem of God's justice by providing an opportunity for all mankind--in eternity as well as in time--to hear the message of redemption from the Word, Jesus himself. To put this simply, it would be unthinkable that Jesus would not speak to anybody he met, wherever it was that he went, so he preached to them and offered the chance of salvation!

Some biblical passages might help us

For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. 1 Peter 4:6

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 1 Peter 3:18

It was Clement of Alexandria who believed in a 'Universal movement and translation'. All people are offered the love of God. The sphere in which the grace of God may operate is beyond human limits. God has all eternity to win people to himself. This may be a helpful way to understand seemingly impossible passages such as Philippians 2:10

'That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.'


Undoubtedly the main thrust of this phrase is to remind us that Jesus was fully dead. Yet, could it be that there is room for salvation for all from this work of Jesus? Surely there are no limits to the grace and goodness of God, either in space or time? We can only hope and pray that the grace of God continues to operate in whatever other world and whatever life there may be.

It is to me a great concern to hear preachers proclaiming who will and who will not be saved. We have no right to state what fate will befall the god fearing worshippers of other faiths who have followed the religion of their forebears. Who can say how God will deal with those who through no fault of their own have failed to practice their faith like us. It is surely a human failing to try and restrict the grace and mercy of God, yet his love is wider than the heart of man.

Who knows what other world there might be in which we might experience the unlimited grace of God, God has all of eternity to draw people to himself. We must be less inclined to proclaim the judgement of God and more willing to hope with such great thinkers as Origen (c185-254 ) He suggested that the final and ultimate triumph of Jesus would result in the eventual submission of even Satan himself to the love of God. This is speculation only and perhaps for some, also a prayer.


One of the most common misunderstandings of Christianity is that it is primarily concerned with giving people a recipe for how to be good, or in the words of Dorothy Sayers 'How to be kind to granny and the cat.' There are those people who like Christianity because they believe that Jesus taught some wonderful things, like the Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, however much we might like his teaching, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then he was an impostor and a fraud, or dangerously insane, and our faith is an illusion. It was not the morality of the Sermon on the Mount which enabled Christianity to conquer Roman Paganism but the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

There have been many attempts to make sense of what occurred at the resurrection. The biblical accounts raise for us more questions than they provide answers. Jesus is raised and he eats food on the beach with the disciples. Yet it is plain that they find it difficult to recognise him and his resurrected body has changed to the extent that he is capable of passing through walls into a locked room.

However the resurrection is not something which we can take or leave. If Jesus was not raised from the dead then in the words of Paul, our faith is in vain.

 Jesus told of his forthcoming death, but he also spoke clearly of his resurrection. (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Matthew 16:21, 17:23, Luke 9:22).

We can be clear on some important facts. The disciples were terrified when Jesus died, they deserted Jesus (Mark 15:50, Matthew 26:56). They were hiding behind closed doors (John 20:19). They were demoralised and afraid and then suddenly something dramatic occurred to change all that. The disciples proclaimed to everyone that Jesus was raised (Acts 2:24-36, 3:15, 4:10, 7:56, )

Since that time Christians have been able to speak about the presence of the risen Jesus with the church. Not in physical form, but a continued presence which ensures that Jesus fulfil his promise to be with us 'even to the ends of the earth.'

What does this mean for us today?

Think how hard it must have been for those disciples who had carried the dead body of Jesus. How were they to believe that he was truly alive? All of their hopes had been dashed and their dreams shattered. Now many of us will have been in the same situation, we too must believe in a God of miracles, who is able to transform our lives and enable us to rebuild the broken parts. We have probably all known death in one form or another, so too we must open our lives to God's resurrection power. In all circumstances of brokenness

  • The loss of friends and loved ones
  • The failures of our lives and the once great dreams we had
  • The loss of youthful vitality and enthusiasm for a life project
  • The chilling of a marriage or relationships which have gone wrong with children or parents
  • The betrayal by confidants
  • Our financial disappointments
  • The appearance of corruption among those of whom we thought better
  • The withering of our own bodies as we recognise how short our mortal life really is

In all of these things we must think of resurrection and the power of our Lord to bring life.

The disciples were not expecting Jesus to be raised otherwise they would have been hiding behind the trees and bushes waiting for the tomb to be opened. But the resurrected Jesus surprised them.

Jesus is not a ghost, he is really alive. It was at a time when they were all so low that Jesus met with them. Today Jesus is once more not to be not found among the dead but the living. He is alive today and quite capable of meeting with you and I, just as he met with the disciples.

Bible Study

1 Corinthians 15:13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Questions for discussion

  • What do you think happened at the resurrection?
  • Would it matter to you if somebody found the corpse of Jesus?
7: And in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord

9: I believe in the Holy Spirit