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Christ’s Burial and the Apostles’ Creed

Continuing through the 1689 Exposition series, the in-depth study of chapter 8 of the confession (Christ’s mediatorial work) includes a lesson on the question of Christ’s burial (available here) and time in the grave, specifically looking at the issue of the Apostles’ Creed (see this recent post that also mentions the Apostles’ Creed) and its statement that “he (Christ) descended into hell.”

This statement did not appear in the earlier forms of the Apostles’ Creed, but showed up by the 4th century.  Later Christians have considered the importance of this early creed, desiring to show the continuation of the orthodox faith from its early history — and have thus attempted to explain what the early church meant by this statement.  This lesson in the 1689 series mentions six “interpretations” of what was meant by “he descended into hell”:

  1. Rufinus  – the first interpretation, from A.D. 390:  it means “he descended into the grave, the abode/realm of the dead.”  Yet this is redundant, as the previous phrase has already told us that “he was buried.”
  2. John Calvin – the view described in the Heidelberg catechism.  Jesus suffered hell on the cross; the sufferings, felt in His soul, an infinite amount of wrath in a finite period of time.  Certainly this is true, but does not fit with what the Apostles’ Creed meant—the sequence is wrong.  If they had meant this, the line would have been earlier in the creed, instead of after the part about being crucified, buried and dead.
  3. The view of the Westminster confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession, also stated in the Westminster Larger Catechism:  “He remained in the state of the dead; the realm of the dead.” Again, redundant to say buried and descended into being dead.
  4. The “Roman Catholic” view, which is also commonly taught in Arminian Baptist churches: this view expands into much speculation, though at least they come up with scripture references, as for instance the story in Luke 16 of the rich man and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom.  Here is the idea that Christ during this time went in His soul (not His body) into the holding place where OT saints were waiting for the application of redemptive work; He preached the gospel to them (“got them fully saved”) and then brought them out from there into heaven.  Other proof-texts for this view include Ephesians 4:8-9 – “He descended into the lower regions” (some think this means hell, below Earth, instead of the Earth itself).  A better way to understand this, though, is the contrast between the lower regions as the earth, versus the higher regions (ascending to heaven).  Additional texts for this view include 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:4-6, and the above lesson explains the supposed idea here as well as other ways to understand these texts.
  5. The Lutheran view: Jesus went to hell, to the place of torment for the damned – not to suffer, but to preach judgment upon them and declare His victory and Lordship, as somehow an inauguration of His victory march. The problem here is complete speculation with no proof from scripture, plus the fact that Christ’s burial was part of His humiliation; this was before the resurrection, and not at all the time of His exaltation.
  6. The Anglican view: Jesus went down to the place of the dead, and gave a fuller explanation of the gospel to the OT saints who were waiting there. Again, this is only speculation, with no proof from scripture or any indication that the writers of the apostles’ creed believed this.

As Hodgins observed, in quoting Wayne Grudem on this subject, certainly we should appreciate the Apostles’ creed as an early statement from the historic church.  But the historical importance alone is not a good reason for “keeping” this phrase and seeking to somehow explain it away.  We don’t really know exactly what the early church meant by it, and a survey of early church history does tell us that the early church fathers were wrong on some of their theology.  This is certainly brought out in the RTS Christian History series, including the fact that understanding of the Trinity, and even the nature of the Father and Son, was not fully developed until the Arian controversy in the mid-4th century; before that time, even Tertullian held onto some idea of the Son being subordinate to the Father and just didn’t develop his thoughts to the full level that is now considered an orthodox view of the Trinity.

  1. johntjeffery
    July 13, 2015 at 6:52 am

    Here is a sampling of some of the resources that I have found helpful on this subject:

    The Creeds of Christendom With a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n.d.; 1990 reprint from 1931 Harper & Row ed.), I:21, 21n6; II:45-50, 46n2, 50n4.

    Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture instead of the Apostles Creed”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 34:1 (MAR 1991), pp. 103-113; PDF file available on The Evangelical Theological Society at http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/34/34-1/34-1-pp103-113_JETS.pdf [accessed 6 AUG 2014].

    Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, rev. and ed. Ernst Bizer, trans. G. T. Thompson (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n.d.; 1978 reprint of 1950 original, from Reformed Dogmatik), pp. 490-494.

    Daniel R. Hyde, “In Defense of the Descendit: A Confessional Response to Contemporary Critics of Christ’s Descent into Hell,” The Confessional Presbyterian, 3 (2007), pp. 104-117; PDF file available on The Confessional Presbyterian at http://www.cpjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/hyde.pdf [accessed 3 JAN 2015].

    Daniel R. Hyde, In Defense of the Descent: A Response to Contemporary Critics, in Exploration in Reformed Confessional Theology, eds. Daniel R. Hyde and Mark Jones (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010); On Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Explorations-Reformed-Confessional-Theology/dp/1601780893 [accessed 3 JAN 2015]; and on Westminster Bookstore at http://www.wtsbooks.com/in-defense-of-the-descent-daniel-hyde-9781601780898 [accessed 3 JAN 2015].

    • July 13, 2015 at 10:56 am

      Thanks for the resources. This lesson referenced a few quotes from Wayne Grudem, probably from the above paper from Grudem.

  2. July 13, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  3. July 13, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    This gives me an idea where some reformed saints or those that hold reformed teaching on this are coming from. The idea of soul, spirit, and body really come into play with this discussion. If you only have 2 parts, then you would have this discussion. Not knowing if there is a difference between soul and spirit brings up this controversy.

    If you have 3 parts, the spirit goes to God Ecc 12:7b the spirit will return to God who gave it, the soul goes to the place of the dead Hades (Sheol) whether in torment or in “paradise” Abraham’s bosom Luke 16 passage, with the body being in burried which is what is mentioned by Paul Acts 13 and Peter Acts 2 in their sermons. I would retain the translation soul not kept in Hades being Abraham’s bosom. I see the hope of believers being the resurrection of our bodies and not our death.

    . I would agree with the catholic arminin baptist view on this one. The difference is that I believe that saints are still in Abraham’s bosom and I see no scriptural support what so ever of saints being in heaven without spiritual (heavenly) bodies.

    This article by G. H. Lang discusses the composition of mankind. He is debating annihilation-ism.


    This link did not work from Daniel Hyde did not work http://www.cpjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/hyde.pdf [accessed 3 JAN 2015].

    This link did work from Daniel Hyde did work below!

    Click to access Daniel-Hyde.pdf

    • July 15, 2015 at 11:33 am

      Thanks, Daniel, that’s an interesting view, of how trichotomy fits with the “Catholic/Arminian baptist” view. I still see that view of where Christ went during that time, as rather speculative, such that people obviously have come up with many different ideas about what happened during the time of His burial.

  4. Neil Schoch
    July 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    Thanks Lynda, and John for all the material provided on this fascinating topic. I enjoyed
    Arden Hodgins message but unfortunately he still referred to Hell instead of Sheol/Hades on a number of occasions which could cause some confusion. Sheol/Hades is always temporary, whereas Hell is eternal.
    The only way I could really come to understand these words and their meanings was to start at the beginning and read through each reference – a laborious task, but well worthwhile. There is a progressive revelation and understanding of these words, especially in relation to the division of two sections, one of comfort and one of suffering.
    Sheol/Hades does not refer to either the grave or to hell. It is a temporary abode of the soul and spirit of mankind, awaiting the judgement for unbelievers and for Christ to remove believers from the place of comfort called Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16.
    Certainly Christ never suffered any further torment in Hell while His body was in the grave. Equally certain is that there is no second chance. We choose our eternal destiny whilst alive and death seals that choice. We either receive or reject Christ.

    I remain ever thankful to all my brothers and sisters in Christ who hold different viewpoints on what is at first a difficult topic to understand. Let us all continue to learn from each other, but most of all as we study God’s holy and inspired Word.

    • July 15, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Thanks for the comment, Neil. Good point about the different terms and their meanings. As I listened to it, I understood Arden Hodgins to be always referring to the place of the dead (both the place of torment and the compartment of paradise) as where the dead go now, as the place BEFORE the (First and Second) resurrection. Though, as you said, he may not have always used the correct terminology.

  5. John Folkomer
    July 14, 2015 at 7:38 am


    Thank you again for your pursuit of Truth. I welcome your posts. Have you ever read Walter C. Kaiser, Jr’ s *The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Zondervan)? *His attempt to steer a course between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. Aspects of it are similar to Spurgeon’s* According to Promise: God’s Method of dealing with His Chosen People.*

    He is also clear in his *Preaching and Teaching the Last Things: Old Testament Eschatology for the Life of the Church (Baker Academic). *

    I appreciate your efforts very much.


    • July 15, 2015 at 11:30 am

      Thanks for the info on Kaiser, John. I have heard of Kaiser (read blog articles about him and his view), but have not yet read any of his books. The Spurgeon title also looks interesting — I wasn’t aware of that book from Spurgeon, and I see it is available online free both in print and audio recording format. (And anything of Spurgeon’s is excellent reading, of course.)

  6. July 23, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    C.E.B. Cranfield has done the best work exegetically on I Peter 3:18-4:6. “Spirits” here, as in Hebrews 12, means humans departed to the afterlife, not angels or fallen angels. “Preaching” is the usual word for preaching the Gospel — not “victory” or “judgment” — especially in this baptismal/discipleship context. The salvation-historical sequence of death, descent into the world of the spirits, resurrection, and ascension as Lord makes Augustine’s view that this refers to a disincarnate preaching by Jesus to the rebels in Noah’s day, before the flood, a ridiculous and arbitrary explanation of the passage. And the forced addition of the word “now” — 4:6 — meaning that the preaching was “during their previous lifetime” but that the “good outcome” then will still result in the future, when Christ returns — breaks the salvation-historical sequence here in a lesser way, but lets the whole “descent” concept drop into oblivion — and so also seems to be eisegesis, not a fair wrestling with the actual Greek. Please also see Gerald Bray’s commentary in the Inter-Varsity series from the early Church fathers here, for a large number of quotes from early Church fathers who did in fact see I Peter 3:18-4:6 (the obvious source of the “descent into sheol/hades/hell” clause in the Creed, which also appears in Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies” in a slightly different form), as offering good supplemental background. Finally, my theology prof of a generation ago, Donald Bloesch, made references off and on to Richard Sibbes as also upholding Cranfield’s view — but so far, I cannot track that reference down. Since you are doing a lot with the Puritans these days, I would much appreciate it if you would post that reference if and when you run across — Dr. Bloesch passed away in 2010, and his widow doesn’t have that information available for me to follow up 😦

    Blessings, and tahnks for all your hard work!!! — Lance Wonders, dean, ACTS Bible College, Blaine, Minnesota

    • July 24, 2015 at 7:03 am

      Thanks for the references, Lance. Yes, the message in the above (1689 Exposition) series provided that “explanation” about a disincarnate preaching by Christ through Noah; didn’t realize that view came from Augustine, but that idea to me doesn’t fit the natural reading of that text. Maybe as I read up more about Richard Sibbes and Cranfield, I’ll find out more about that connection as well.

  7. andydoerksen
    September 10, 2015 at 7:53 am

    A resolution may depend on what specifically is meant by “Hell.” If by “Hell” is meant the final /place/ (not merely a state of being) to which the lost will be damned in the Age to Come, then no, Jesus certainly didn’t go to Hell.

    But if by “Hell” is meant a state of being – separation from God – then yes, Jesus descended into Hell: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) The state of being to be experienced by the lost in the future is, indeed, described in part as separation from God (2Thess. 1:9).

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