An Exposition of the Creed of the Apostles
Works vol. 5, pp. 229-236
Now follows the third and last degree of Christ’s humiliation, He “descended into hell.”
The Descent Clause not part of the original Creed.
It seems very likely that these words were not placed in the Creed at the first [Symbol, P. Viret], or (as some think [Colloquia, Erasmus]) that they crept in by negligence, because above threescore creeds of the most ancient counsels and fathers want this clause, and among the rest is the Nicene Creed. But if the ancient and learned fathers assembled in that counsel had been persuaded or at the least had imagined that these words had been set down at the first by the apostles, no doubt they would not in any wise have left them out. And an ancient writer says directly that these words, “He descended into hell,” are not found in the creed of the Roman church nor used in the churches of the East; and if they be, that then they signify the burial of Christ [Rufinus, Exposition of the Creed, §18]. And it must not seem strange to any that a word or twain in process of time should creep into the Creed, considering that the original copies of the books of the Old and New Testament have in them sundry varieties of reading and words otherwhiles, which from the margin have crept into the text. Nevertheless, considering that this clause has long continued in the Creed, and that by common consent of the catholic church of God, and it may carry a fit sense and exposition, it is not, as some would have it, to be put forth.
Therefore, that we may come to speak of the meaning of it, we must know that it has four usual expositions, which we will rehearse in order and then make choice of that which shall be thought the fittest.
1. A local descent.
The first is that Christ’s soul after the passion upon the cross did really and locally descend into the place of the damned. But this seems not to be true. The reasons are these.
(1) All the evangelists, and among the rest St. Luke, intending to make an “exact narration” of the life and death of Christ (Luke 1:3), has set down at large His passion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, and withal they make rehearsal of small circumstances. Therefore, no doubt they would not have omitted Christ’s local descent into the place of the damned, if there had been any such thing. And the end why they penned this history was that we might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and believing we might have life everlasting (John 20:31). Now there could not have been a greater matter for the confirmation of our faith than this, that Jesus, the son of Mary, who went down to the place of the damned, returned thence to live in happiness forever.
(2) If Christ did go into the place of the damned, then either in soul or in body or in His Godhead. But His Godhead could not descend, because it is everywhere. And His body was in the grave. And as for His soul, it went not to hell, but presently after His death it went to paradise—that is, the third heaven, a place of joy and happiness: “This day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (23:43), which words of Christ must be understood of His manhood or soul and not of His Godhead. For they are an answer to a demand, and therefore unto it they must be suitable. Now the thief, seeing that Christ was first of all crucified and therefore in all likelihood should first of all die, makes his request to this effect: “Lord, Thou shalt shortly enter into Thy kingdom. Remember me then.” To which Christ’s answer (as the very words import) is thus much: “I shall enter into paradise this day, and there shall you be with Me.” Now there is no entrance but in regard of His soul or manhood. For the Godhead, which is at all times in all places, cannot be said properly to enter into a place. Again, when Christ says, “Thou shalt be with me in paradise,” He does intimate a resemblance which is between the first and second Adam. The first Adam sinned against God and was presently cast forth out of paradise. Christ, the second Adam, having made a satisfaction for sin, must immediately enter into paradise. Now to say that Christ in soul descended locally into hell is to abolish this analogy between the first and second Adam.
(3) Ancient councils in their confessions and creeds, omitting this clause, show that they did not acknowledge any real descent and that the true meaning of those words, “he descended,” was sufficiently included in some of the former articles. And that may appear because when they set down it, they omit some of the former—as Athanasius in his creed, setting down these words, “he descended,” etc., omits the “burial,” putting them both for one as he expounds himself elsewhere. Now let us see the reasons which may be alleged to the contrary.
Objection 1. “The Son of man shall be three days and three nights in the earth” (Matt. 12:40)—that is, in hell.
Answer. 1. This exposition is directly against the scope of the place, for the Pharisees desired “to see a sign”—that is, some sensible and manifest miracle. And hereunto Christ answers that He will give them the sign of Jonah, which cannot be the descent of His soul into the place of the damned, because it was insensible, but rather His burial and after it His manifest and glorious resurrection. 2. The heart of the earth may as well signify the grave, as the center of the earth. For thus Tyrus, bordering upon the sea, is said to be in the “heart of the sea” (Ezek. 27:4). 3. This exposition takes it for granted that hell is seated in the midst of the earth, whereas the Scriptures reveal unto us no more but this, that hell is in the lower parts. But where these lower parts should be, no man is able to define.
Objection 2. “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption” (Acts 2:27).
Answer. These words cannot prove any local descent of Christ’s soul. For Peter’s drift in alleging of them is to prove the resurrection, and he says expressly that the words must be understood of the resurrection of Christ: “He seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ” (v. 31). What? Namely, these words, “his soul was not left in hell,” etc. Now there is no resurrection of the soul, but of the body only, as the soul cannot be said to fall, but the body.
It will be replied that the word psychē (ψυχήν) cannot signify the body, and the word hadēs (ᾅδης), the grave. Answer. The first word signifies not only the spiritual part of man, the soul, but also the whole person or the man himself (Rom. 13:1; 1 Cor. 15:40). And the second is as well taken for the grave, as for hell: Death and hadēs are cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Now we cannot say that hell is cast into hell, but the grave into hell. And the very same word in this text must needs have this sense. For Peter makes an opposition between the grave into which David is shut up and the hell out of which Christ was delivered (Acts 2:29, 31).
Again, it will be said that in this text there be two distinct parts: the first, of the souls coming forth of hell, in these words, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell”; the second, of the bodies rising out of the grave, in the next words, “Neither wilt thou suffer my flesh to see corruption.” Answer. It is not so. For flesh in this place signifies not the body alone, but the human nature of Christ, as appears (v. 30), unless we shall say that one and the same word in the same sentence is taken two ways. And the words rather carry this sense: “Thou wilt not suffer me to continue long in the grave. Nay, which is more, in the time of my continuance there, Thou wilt not suffer me so much as to feel any corruption, because I am Thy holy one.”
Objection 3. “Christ was quickened in spirit, by the which spirit he went and preached to the spirits which are in prison” (1 Peter 3:19).
Answer. The place is not for this purpose. For by “spirit” is not meant the soul of Christ, but the Godhead, which in the ministry of Noah preached repentance to the old world. And I think that Peter in this place alludes to another place in Genesis 6:3, where the Lord says, “My spirit shall not always strive with man, because he is but flesh.” And if the spirit do signify the soul, then Christ was quickened either by His soul or in His soul. But neither is true.
For the first, it cannot be said that Christ was quickened by His soul, because it did not join itself to the body; but the Godhead joined them both. Neither was He quickened in soul, for His soul died not. It could not die the first death, which belongs to the body; and it did not die the second death, which is a total separation from God. Only it suffered the sorrows of the second death, which is the apprehension of the wrath of God, as a man may feel the pangs of the first death and yet not die the first death but live.
Again, it is to no end that Christ’s soul should go to hell to preach—consider that it was never heard of that one soul should preach to another, especially in hell, where all are condemned and in conscience convicted of their just damnation and where there is no hope of repentance or redemption.
It will be answered that this preaching is only real or experimental, because Christ shows Himself there to convince the unbelief of His enemies. But this is flat against reason. For when a man is justly condemned by God and therefore sufficiently convicted, what need the Judge Himself come to the place of execution to convict him? And it is flat against the text, for the preaching that is spoken of here is that which is performed by men in the ministry of the word, as Peter expounds himself, “To this purpose was the gospel preached unto the dead, that they might be condemned according to men in the flesh, that they might live according to God in the Spirit” (1 Peter 4:6). Lastly, there is no reason why Christ should rather preach and show Himself in hell to them that were disobedient in the days of Noah, than to the rest of the damned.
2. His burial.
And this is the first exposition. The second follows. “He descended into hell”—that is, Christ descended into the grave or was buried. This exposition is agreeable to the truth, yet is it not meet or convenient. For the clause next before, “he was buried,” contained this point. And therefore if the next words following yield the same sense, there must be a vain and needless repetition of one and the same thing twice, which is not in any wise to be allowed in so short a creed as this. If it be said that these words are an exposition of the former, the answer is that then they should be more plain than the former. For when one sentence expounds another, the latter must always be the plainer. But of these two sentences, “he was buried,” “he descended into hell,” the first is very plain and easy, but the latter very obscure and hard. And therefore it can be no exposition thereof, and for this cause this exposition neither, is it to be received.
3. The pangs of Hell & wrath of God.
Thirdly, others there be which expound it thus: “he descended into hell”—that is, Christ Jesus when He was dying upon the cross felt and suffered the pangs of hell and the full wrath of God seizing upon His soul. This exposition has warrant in God’s Word, where hell often signifies the sorrows and pains of hell, as Hannah in her song unto the Lord says, “The Lord killeth and maketh alive, he brings down to hell and raiseth up” (1 Sam. 2:6)—that is, He makes men feel woe and misery in their souls, even the pangs of hell, and after restores them. And David says, “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the terrors of hell laid hold on me” (Ps. 18:5). This is a usual exposition received of the church, and they which expound this article thus give this reason thereof. The former words, “was crucified, dead, and buried,” do contain (say they) the outward sufferings of Christ. Now, because He suffered not only outwardly in body but also inwardly in soul, therefore these words, “he descended into hell,” do set forth unto us His inward sufferings in soul when He felt upon the cross the full wrath of God upon Him.
This exposition is good and true, and whosoever will may receive it. Yet nevertheless it seems not so fitly to agree with the order of the former articles. For these words, “was crucified dead and buried,” must not be understood of any ordinary death, but of a cursed death in which Christ suffered the full wrath of God, even the pangs of hell both in soul and body. Seeing then this exposition is contained in the former words, it cannot fitly stand with the order of this short creed, unless there should be a distinct article of things repeated before.
4. Bondage under death for three days.
But let us come to the fourth exposition. “He descended into hell”—that is, when He was dead and buried, He was held captive in the grave and lay in bondage under death for the space of three days. This exposition also may be gathered forth of the Scriptures. St. Peter says, “God hath raised him up”—speaking of Christ—“and loosed the sorrows of death, because it was impossible that he should be holden of it” (Acts 2:24). Where we may see that between the death and resurrection of Christ there is placed a third matter which is not mentioned in any clause of the Apostles’ Creed save in this, and that is His bondage under death, which comes in between His death and rising again. And the words themselves do most fitly bear this sense, as the speech of Jacob shows, “I will go down into hell (i.e. the grave), unto my son mourning” (Gen. 37:35).
And this exposition does also best agree with the order of the Creed. First, He was crucified and died; secondly, He was buried; thirdly, laid in the grave and was therein held in captivity and bondage under death. And these three degrees of Christ’s humiliation are most fitly correspondent to the three degrees of His exaltation. The first degree of exaltation, “he rose again the third day,” answering to the first degree of His humiliation, “he died.” The second degree of His exaltation, “he ascended into heaven,” answering to going down into the grave, “was buried.” And, thirdly, His “sitting at the right hand of God”—which is the highest degree of His exaltation—answering to the lowest degree of His humiliation, “he descended into hell.” These two last expositions are commonly received, and we may indifferently make choice of either. But the last (as I take it) is most agreeable to the order and words of the Creed. Thus much for the meaning of the words. Now follow the uses.
Practical Uses of the Proper Interpretation of the Descent Clause.
First of all, Christ’s descending into hell—teaching every one of us that profess the name of Christ that if it shall please God to afflict us either in body or in mind or in both, though it be in most grievous and tedious manner, yet must we not think it strange. For if Christ upon the cross not only suffered the pangs of hell, but after He was dead, death takes Him and as it were carries Him into his den or cabin and there triumphs over Him, holding Him in captivity and bondage, and yet for all this was He the Son of God. And therefore, when God’s hand is heavy upon us any way, we are not to despair but rather think it is the good pleasure of God to frame and fashion us that we may become like unto Christ Jesus as good children of God.
David, a man after God’s own heart, was by Samuel anointed king over Israel; but withal God raised up Saul to persecute him as the fowler hunts the partridge in the mountains, insomuch that David said there was but one step between him and death. So likewise Job, a just man and one that feared God with all his heart—yet how heavily did God lay His hand upon him? His goods and cattle were all taken away, and his children slain, and his body stricken by Satan with loathsome boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head, so as he was fain to take a potsherd and scrape himself, sitting among the ashes (Job 2:8–9). And Jonah, the servant and prophet of the most high God, when he was called to preach to Nineveh, because he refused for fear of that great city, God met with him, and he must be cast into the sea and there be swallowed up of a whale, that so He might chastise him. And thus does He deal with His own servants to make them conformable to Christ.
And further, when it pleases God to lay His hand upon our souls and make us have a troubled and distressed conscience, so as we do as it were struggle with God’s wrath as for life and death and can find nothing but His indignation seizing upon our souls, which is the most grievous and perplexed estate that any man can be in—in this case, howsoever we cannot discern or see any hope or comfort in ourselves, we must not think it strange nor quite despair of His mercy. For the Son of God Himself descended into hell, and death carried Him captive and triumphed over Him in the grave. And therefore, though God seem to be our utter enemy, yet we must not despair of His help.
In divers psalms we read how David was not only persecuted outwardly of his enemies, but even his soul and conscience were perplexed for his sins so as his very “bones were consumed within him, and his moisture was turned into the drought in summer” (Ps. 32:3-4). This caused Job to cry out that “arrows of God were within him, and the venom thereof did drink up his spirit, the terrors of God did fight against him, and the grief of his soul was as weighty as the sand of the sea” (Job 6:4), by reason whereof he says that “the Lord did make him a mark and a butt to shoot at.” And therefore, when God shall thus afflict us either in body or in soul or in both, we must not always think that it is the wrathful hand of the Lord that begins to bring us to utter condemnation for our sins, but rather His fatherly work to kill sin in us and to make us grow in humility, that so we may become like unto Christ Jesus.
Secondly, whereas Christ for our sakes was thus abased even unto the lowest degree of humiliation that can be, it is an example for us to imitate, as Christ Himself prescribes: “Learn of me, that I am meek and lowly” (Matt. 11:29). And that we may be the better to do this, we must learn to become nothing in ourselves, that we may be all in all forth of ourselves in Christ. We must loathe and think as basely of ourselves as possibly may be in regard of our sins. Christ Jesus upon the cross was content for our sake to become “a worm and no man,” as David says (Ps. 22:6), which did chiefly appear in this lowest degree of His of His humiliation, when as death did as it were tread on Him in his den. And the same mind must likewise be in us which was in Him. The liking that we have of ourselves must be mere nothing, but all our love and liking must be forth of ourselves in the death and blood of Christ.