The Apostles’ Creed

Leon L. Combs, M.A., Ph.D.

This creed did not have as its origin approved by a single council at one time but it took shape from about A.D. 200 to 750. It was not developed by the Apostles but it was thought to be in agreement with the theology of the apostolic age. The earliest form was the Old Roman Creed developed during the second half of the second century and it reads:

I believe in God the Father almighty. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary; crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the flesh.

The full form that appears now in many denominations is from about A.D. 700:

I believe in God the Father almighty; Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into Heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of the God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.

Comparing these two documents, we see the major change was the addition of the descent of Christ into hell. It seemed to first appear in a version from Rufinus in A.D. 390 and it was not included again until A.D. 650. Rufinus thought that the phrase just meant that Jesus descended into the grave (was buried) as the Greek form has “Hades” that can mean just grave and not a place of punishment. This phrase was included only in a couple of the copies kept by Rufinus. Since it did not appear until many centuries after the apostolic age, one certainly wonders why it is included in the document called the Apostles’ Creed.

The question then is: Does Scripture support the addition of “he descended into hell” into this creed? People supporting this addition primarily site five passages: Acts 2:27, Romans 10:6-7, Eph 4:8-9, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6. So, let’s look at these passages.

1. Acts 2:27 Because Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.

As mentioned above, the Greek word “Hades” can mean grave and the NIV translation reads: “Because you will not abandon me to the grave”. Peter is quoting from Psa 16:10 and this translation better fits the context of the psalm since Peter is using it to show that Christ’s body did not decay as did the body of David. Thus this verse does not support the claim that Christ descended into hell.

2. Rom 10:6-7 But the righteousness based on faith speaks thus, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down), or' Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Two rhetorical questions are quoted from Deut 30:13 and do not teach that Christ descended into hell. These are two questions that someone with faith will not ask because Christ did come from heaven and He ascended into heaven and He is present in every believer. Nobody but God could have accomplished this task. Paul is just stating that Christ is not accessible to humans without God granting the faith to believe what He has done. Thus this verse does not support the claim that Christ descended into hell

3. Eph 4:8-9 Therefore it says, "When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men." (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?

The phrase “the lower parts of the earth” can be translated as “the lower regions which are the earth”. Paul is just saying that Christ came to the earth so that He could then ascend on high. He could not ascend unless He had also descended. The verse simply says that Christ first was incarnated and then He ascended into heaven. Thus this verse does not support the claim that Christ descended into hell

4. 1Peter 3:18-19 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,

For many people this is the most puzzling passage. The last part is taken by some to mean that Christ preached to the spirits in hell. Also it is best to not just take these two verses but to include the next verse to add proper context: “who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.” (1Peter 3:20)

The spirit audience then is not spirits in general but those who disobeyed during the building of the ark. Why would Christ just go to hell to preach to this group and not all spirits in hell? There is no possibility of repentance after death (Luke 16:26, Heb 10:26-27) so certainly that was not a reason for such a visit. The most likely explanation of why Peter wrote this was proposed long ago by Augustine (A.D. 354-430) who did not include the descended into hell statement in his version of the Apostles’ Creed. He proposed that this was an act of Christ in the spirit at the time of Noah so that when Noah was building the ark Christ was preaching through Noah to the unbelievers around him. Peter had already stated that Christ was speaking in the OT prophets (1 Peter 1:11) and in 1 Peter 1:5 he calls Noah a preacher of righteousness. Thus it seems that Peter is just stating that Jesus Christ had preached to people of all ages through God’s prophets so that nobody has an excuse for not believing the works of God through Jesus, His Son. The phrase then can be stated to mean: “Christ preached to people who are now spirits in prison when they were still persons on earth.” Thus this verse does not support the claim that Christ descended into hell

5. 1Peter 4:6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.

Again, context must be considered, especially when the sentence begins with the word “for”. So we must read the preceding verses:

1Peter 4:3-5 For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you; but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

The “purpose” of 1 Peter 4:6 is then the judging of the living and the dead. Those Gentiles who continue in sin and malign those not following them will be judged by God since the gospel has already been preached to them. This statement would have been comforting to those whose friends or family members had died because the purpose was not to save them from physical death but from eternal death. Thus the gospel has been preached to all, even to those now dead, and those rejecting it have eternal death and those who accepted it have eternal life. Thus this verse does not support the claim that Christ descended into hell

The above analysis shows there is no indisputable scriptural support for the concept of Christ having descended into hell after His physical death. Also there are many verses to support the rejection of this statement:

•Luke 23:43 And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." This verse implies that Jesus’ spirit immediately was present in Paradise, not hell.

•John 19:30 When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. This verse states that there was nothing left for Jesus to accomplish such as preaching to spirits in hell.

•Luke 23:46 And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit." And having said this, He breathed His last. This verse states that the work of Jesus was finished and He was welcomed into Heaven. Note that Stephen made a similar statement: “And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”(Acts 7:59)

The proper understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus is very comforting to Christians. When we die our body will be buried and our spirit will immediately be in the presence of God in heaven (2 Cor 5:6-8). The spiritual existence of Christians working in Heaven with the Lord Jesus Christ is the only intermediate state to which Christians go before receiving their regenerated physical body. There will then be a day when our spirit is reunited with our body as was that of Jesus.

The only support for keeping this statement in the Creed is that it has been there for a long time. But an old mistake is still a mistake. It has no claim to an origin from the teachings of the apostles and it was not present during the first six centuries of the church age. It seems to have been included only because of a misunderstanding of its meaning. It does not represent any major Christian doctrine recognized by most Christians but actually is a statement to which most Christians disagree. The doctrinal position is certainly that Jesus Christ did not descend into hell when He died and there would be all gain and no loss for the phrase to be omitted from the Apostles’ Creed.


Web Author: Dr. Leon L. Combs
Copyright ©2012 by Dr. Leon L. Combs - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED