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Why “He Suffered the Agony of Hell for Me” as an Explanation of “He Descended to Hell” in the Apostles’ Creed

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As we study the Apostles’ Creed at Faith Church, one phrase that may sound different to those who have previously recited the creed is “he suffered the agony of hell for me.” Some churches omit this phrase altogether, but most churches use this version: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, he descended into hell.”  It seems wise to offer an explanation for this particular revision we are using as we study the creed and as we recite it together in this time (and hopefully in the years to come). 

A Common Understanding of “He Descended to Hell”
When reading/reciting the phrase “he descended to hell,” the impression most people have is that Jesus went to hell and spent three days there between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. During this time, Jesus announced redemption and released the faithful who died before he came from the netherworld. This story is found in an apocryphal book (a later writing not really written by the apostles or early followers of Jesus) known as the Gospel of Nicodemus which contains “the Acts of Pilate” (likely written in the third century), but it is unclear if it comes from Scripture. In fact, when we study the Bible, we see a number of problems with this view. First, Jesus told the thief on the cross “today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), implying that the thief and Jesus were going to the same place upon death. Second, Jesus gives his spirit to the Father on the cross (Luke 23:46), which would not be true if he then went to hell. Jesus did not need to go to hell to complete his work of salvation, as on the cross he declares, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Third, the idea that Jesus had to go to hell to bring Old Testament saints out of hell seems to ignore the fact that back then, Jews presumed followers of God were in His presence at death, with nothing to indicate otherwise (Luke 16:26). 

In addition, passages that are often viewed as reflecting a descent to hell (Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6) do not necessarily teach this view when examined more closely. Ephesians 4 speaks about Jesus descending from heaven to earth, and 1 Peter 4:6 points to those who are now dead hearing the gospel when they were alive. The closest a passage comes to supporting this view is 1 Peter 3:18-20, which I admit is not the easiest passage to understand. It talks about Jesus preaching to spirits imprisoned who were disobedient at the time of Noah. This might mean that Jesus spoke to them at the time of Noah through the Spirit (as Augustine and others maintained) or that he preached to them after his death. That said, note that this passage highlights that Jesus preached not to all the dead, but to “spirits in prison,” which seems to reflect an angelic rebellion that occurred right before the flood (Genesis 6:1-4) that led to angels being imprisoned (see 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6). Such a proclamation would be an announcement of Jesus’s victory to fallen angels, not humans — and nothing is mentioned of a release of the godly from a holding place. The announcement of Jesus here is of good news of his victory in the spiritual world, similar to what we see in Colossians 2:15. That can be comforting to know – Jesus is victorious! – but it is different from what people often think about when they hear “descended to hell.”

Another Interpretation of “He Descended to Hell”
Some Christians have interpreted “He descended to hell” simply to mean that Jesus died, with some churches saying that Jesus “descended to the dead.” The idea behind this phrase would be that Jesus was dead and went to the place where the dead go — which would make it better to say “Hades” or “Sheol” rather than “hell,” as it was not the place of torment. There are many places in the Bible where “hell” has this meaning of the grave rather than a place of punishment. There is some evidence that the earlier Latin versions of the creed used the word for “place of the dead” rather than “place of punishment” (as the difference between the two Latin words is only one letter!). In this way, Jesus was born and died just like every other human, and because he was dead, he has conquered death for us; death no longer has its grip on us. A problem some have with this idea is that it comes after “died and buried” and thus seems redundant (why would it be added?).

Another Alternative – Excluding the Phrase All Together
Something scholars have discovered in studying the creed is that some of the earliest editions and renditions of the creed do not include this phrase. In many ways, the Nicene Creed is an elaboration of the Apostles’ Creed, and it does not include this line. This observation has led some to conclude it is a later addition to the creed and thus should not be included when reciting it. While it might not be in some of the earliest editions, it seems to have been included at some point fairly early in the Christian church and thus part of the tradition. Some of the beauty of reciting this creed is that it connects us back to Christians in a variety of times and places, so it seems that something is lost when we don’t recite it. In fact, John Calvin did not just say that we lose this connection, but that we lose some of our understanding of Christ’s death if we don’t have the phrase. He said it is “of no small moment in bringing about redemption” and that “if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.” Thus, it seems wise to include the phrase when reciting the creed.

Towards a Better Understanding – “He Suffered the Agony of Hell for Me
While it seems important to include this line when reciting the creed, it only seems helpful to say something if we understand what it means – and if we are confused by the words or associate with a dubious belief, perhaps it is better to offer a different wording that better reflects what this phrase means. This is what we hope to do as a church by offering this alternative wording of “he suffered the agony of hell for me.” This understanding of the line “he descended to hell” comes from Q & A 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Q. Why does the creed add, “He descended to hell”?

A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment

The Catechism explains this phrase as follows: Christ suffered for us throughout his life, with him experiencing hell for us on the cross, as he was separated from and forsaken by God since sinners are in hell. The Father turned His face away from Jesus and darkness descended as Jesus experienced God’s wrath poured out on him. It points back to Jesus being the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:4-5 as he was “smitten by God, and afflicted…and was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” This phrase comes after the description of his life and death as a summary of all that he did for us, thus giving us a spiritual understanding of his life and death. This explanation reflects what we find in Scripture (other Scriptures cited in this explanation are Matthew 26:36-46; 27:45-46; Luke 22:44; and Hebrews 5:7-10). Therefore, the wording we are using helps to make sense of this phrase, taking away confusion and misconceptions while also demonstrating its value. After saying that Jesus died for us,we go further to say that his death was the suffering we deserve and that he came to save us. 

The Comfort Offered by This Truth
We don’t want to just recite the creed or simply understand the truths behind each line, but as the Heidelberg Catechism points out so clearly as it goes through the creed, we need to be comforted by the truths. This idea that Jesus suffered the agony and anguish of hell for us should comfort us. Because Jesus experienced it, we do not have to, which means that when we are in dread and tempted, we can have assurance that Jesus has delivered us from the punishment and power of sin. Because of this, we are forgiven and can be victorious! When you recite the creed, whether with the more traditional line or with this (hopefully helpful) rewording, remember this important truth.  

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