Thomas McKenzie
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Descending into Hell


I received an interesting couple of questions from one of my church members today.  Since I took some time to answer them, and since the questions were good ones, I thought you all might be interested, also.  

The Questions

I’ve noticed that the Apostles Creed contains the text “he descended into hell” while the Nicene Creed does not. In my ventures into the web to look for some information, I’ve become bogged down and rather lost.
Could you either point me in a good direction OR explain (briefly) my queries:
  1. Why is this phrase not in both? Especially since we use both in our church.
  2. What is the Scriptural grounds for this statement?
My Answer


The Nicene and Apostles' Creed arose in an interesting way.  The earliest version of the Apostles' Creed is commonly called "the Roman Symbol."  It came into being as a statement to be used with baptism in the 2nd century A.D.  The purpose of it was this: when you are baptized into the name of the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," we should say a bit more about that God.  What do we mean when we use those words?  What "Father, Son, and Spirit" are we talking about, specifically?  So, the Roman Symbol clarified the God honored in baptism, and the faith into which the person was baptized.  It was used, as far as we can tell, exclusively by the churches in and around Italy.  

Here is a text of the Roman Symbol:



I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh
(the life everlasting).


When the Nicene Creed was written, and later revised by the Council of Constantinople, the form of it was based in part on the Roman Symbol.  However, this Creed has an entirely different purpose.  It is used to define the God worshiped in the Church generally, and especially in the Eucharist.  Also, it was a Creed for all parts of the Christian world, not just Italy .  The Nicene Creed further focuses on the person and work of Christ and his relationship with the Father.  That was the major subject of the Council of Nicaea, whence comes the Creed. 

The Apostles' Creed was a 5th century revision of the Roman Symbol.  Once again, it was used primarily at baptism for the same purpose.  Also, it has only been used in the Latin speaking church.  It was influenced both by the Roman Symbol and by the Nicene Creed. 

The decent into hell was added in the 5th century, and is usually considered a very minor point of doctrine by the universal Church.  It is not in Nicene Creed, I suppose, because no one thought it was important enough to put in there, or maybe it didn't even come up in conversation.  It certainly wasn't being argued about.

However, in baptism it does have a part to play.  It comes from 1 Peter 3:19 in which Christ is said to have died and then proclaimed the Gospel to the spirits in prison.  Peter then goes on to link this proclamation to "baptism which now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21, but please look at all the verses around this to see the context).  So this part of Christ's story is linked directly to baptism in the Bible, and then therefore to the creed said at baptism. 

In more modern translations of the Apostles' Creed, we say "descended to the dead."  The original text can be read as "place of the dead" as easily as it can be read "hell," and hell is a more doubtful interpretation of Peter's "spirits in prison," but that is a whole other topic.


Today, Anglicans use the Apostles' Creed at Baptism and as part of the Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer liturgies.  The Nicene Creed is used at Eucharist, unless we are also baptizing on Sunday morning.  If we baptize, we use the Apostles' Creed as part of that portion of the liturgy and leave out the Nicene Creed for that day.  

Church, Liturgy, TheologyThomas McKenzie