When we recite the Apostles’ Creed in church, we have no problem with the affirmation that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” But when we come to the next phrase, “He descended into hell,” we scratch our heads and wonder what is meant. The affirmation that Christ descended into hell is one of the most celebrated and controversial sentences in the Apostles’ Creed.
Some Protestants have objected to this clause. There was one Protestant pastor named Walter Deloenus in the 16th century who pastored a congregation in London. He didn’t think the descent clause was biblical and so he just deleted it. However, this created a bit of dust-up, and after he was rebuked by his fellow pastors he acknowledged his error.
Even today there are well known Evangelical scholars like Wayne Grudem who want to strike this clause. In 1991, Grudem published an article titled, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed” (JETS March 1991). He pointed out that the descent clause seems to have been added later, first showing up in the Creed of the Council of Sirmium in AD 359. The descent clause was not universally included in the Creed until around AD 650. But Grudem’s main argument is that it’s just not biblical. Nowhere does the Bible teach that Jesus descended into hell.
Calvin was equally concerned with this phrase and felt the weight of these objections against it. However, he didn’t want to tamper with an ancient Creed, so he interpreted it metaphorically (Institutes 2.16.8-12). He said that the descent of Jesus into hell means that Jesus endured the torments of hell in his soul prior to his death. Calvin’s interpretation is theologically acceptable. It’s true that Jesus “endured most grievous torments … in his soul” (WCF VIII.4), in addition to the painful sufferings of his body. Calvin’s metaphorical interpretation has had a tremendous influence in the continental Reformed tradition. It is the view enshrined in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 16:
Question 44: Why is there added, “he descended into hell”? Answer: That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
This metaphorical interpretation is defended by many Reformed pastors to this day, e.g., Daniel Hyde, In Defense of the Descent (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
But I just can’t see that this is what was intended by “he descended into hell.” If the descent clause is a metaphorical way of describing Christ’s atoning sufferings on the cross, then it’s in the wrong place. It should be after “was crucified” and before “died and was buried.” On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished,” so we know that the atoning sufferings of Christ were completed before he died. He did not go into hell after his death to suffer further punishment in our place.