The confession that Christ “descended into hell” in the Apostle’s and Athanasian Creed has always made me uncomfortable. Why would anyone believe that Christ descended into hell after he died when Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”? The last time I checked, paradise is not the same as hell. Hell in English is a place of torment, not where saints and angels dwell. The Bible teaches that Christ did not go to hell upon his death, but “to the Father” (John 13:1, 3; 16:5, 28; 17:11, 13). To say that Christ descended into hell communicates something that is untrue and at best misleading.
This statement reflects a belief that was common in the early church known as the “harrowing of hell” where Christ went to Sheol to preach the gospel to Old Testament saints between his death and resurrection. The logic behind this belief is that since a person cannot be saved without believing the gospel, Old Testament saints were in need of postmortem evangelism since they died without knowing about the resurrection of Christ. But the false assumption behind this argument is that the amount of content in the gospel cannot change over time. Old Testament saints did believe in the gospel about the coming of the Messiah. That is why Paul can say that God “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal 3:8) and Jesus can say that Abraham looked forward to his day (John 8:56). It also misunderstands the Hebrew concept of Sheol as hell rather than the realm of death or the dead in general until progressive revelation made the teaching on the intermediate state more clear.
The passage that is cited most often to argue for a descent of Christ into hell is 1 Peter 3:19 which speaks of Christ proclaiming to the spirits in prison. But this proclamation did not take place after Christ died, but during the time of Noah when Christ in his immortal state preached the gospel through Noah to the unbelieving world when the ark was being built. Now that they are dead, they exist as spirits in hell without physical bodies until the resurrection of the dead (John 5:28-29; 2 Pet 2:9).
It should also be noted that this language was not present in the earliest versions of the Apostle’s Creed. In addition, it was originally understood as a reference to the burial of Christ or to the Old Testament concept of Sheol or the abode of the dead in general (Ps 16:10). To even call it the “Apostle’s Creed” is misleading because they had nothing to do with it. The creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is the true Apostle’s Creed and there is nothing in it about a descent of Christ into hell.
Many Christians, such as John Calvin, have reinterpreted the phrase to refer to Christ’s suffering on the cross where he bore the punishment for our sins. Rather than being honest and saying that the phrase is not true, they try to fit it into Scripture by redefining it. But this is historically dishonest and a novel interpretation of the phrase. They feel like they have to believe in it in order to be Christians because they are afraid of the Athanasian threat that unless they believe everything it says, they cannot be saved. When it says, “This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved,” it is making belief in an unbiblical human tradition a necessary requirement for salvation. By saying that people must believe Christ descended into hell in order to be saved, the Athanasian Creed is adding to the gospel and assuming an authority that only belongs to Scripture.
If we are going to accept as true the descent of Christ into hell because the Athanasian Creed says so and anyone who opposes anything the Athanasian Creed teaches can’t be saved, then we had might as well convert to Roman Catholicism because at least it is consistent in believing in the infallibility of the ecumenical creeds of the church. It might be argued that I am engaging in “chronological snobbery” by placing my own private interpretation of the Bible (that for some reason Christ went to paradise instead of hell after he died) above the creeds of the church. But the ones who are engaging in chronological snobbery are not those who oppose the descent of Christ into hell, but those who are adding to the old gospel of Scripture as if only believing in it is not good enough to be saved. Having to believe in the descent of Christ into hell in order to be saved is simply one more thing that obscures the simplicity of the gospel (Rom 10:9-10). Not to mention that the Athanasian Creed has nothing to do with Athanasius, is a product of the Western Latin church rather than being an ecumenical document, advocates the filioque which the Eastern church rejects, and did not exist until the sixth century. If I have to choose between believing in the words of my savior on the cross versus a human document that did not exist until the sixth century, I’m going to go with Jesus every time. For more on this topic, I recommend the articles on 1 Peter 3 and the descent of Christ into hell by Wayne Grudem.