And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment (Heb. 9:27, NKJV)
The Creed concludes the downward descent of Christ from glory to grave with one final, much-debated phrase. Jesus “descended into hell.” This phrase was not original to the Apostles’ Creed and may have been included even centuries later. Why did the church fathers think that phrase important to the gospel story? It has to do with the humanity of Jesus in His representation of us in the death we experience.
What happens when we die? We are separated body and soul. Our bodies rest in the grave until Jesus returns in glory, whereupon we are given resurrection bodies like Jesus had (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:12-56). What happened when Jesus in His humanity died? Like us, He was separated body and soul. The Old Testament place of the departed was Sheol. The New Testament equivalent is Hades, sometimes translated “hell.”
Hades does not refer to a place of punishment; that would be Gehenna (also translated “hell”). Rather the Creed references Hades to describe the human experience of death. Jesus did not enter Gehenna to be punished for the sins He bore. It was on the cross that He endured the fullness of the wrath of God as He suffered the penalty of the law-breaker and the just wrath of God in condemnation for the sins of others He bore.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the judgment that awaits every human being at his or her death. “[Jesus] then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Heb. 9:26–28).
Men die once and face judgment. The God-Man died once and faced judgment, just as those He came to represent. But, as we will see, the grave could not hold Him. (excerpted from The Christian’s Creed, pp. 85-86)
- How does the phrase “descended into hell” reflect what every human being experiences at death, in terms of separation of body and soul?
- Why is it important to understand that hell in the Creed does not refer to the punishment of Gehenna?
Father, we thank You that Jesus identified with us in our humanity in every way and was judged and found not guilty in our place.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.