Is It OK to Confess That Jesus Descended into Hell?

If your church has ever recited the Apostles’ Creed, you’re probably familiar with that awkward feeling you get when you come to the part that says “he descended into hell.” Numerous questions come to mind. For example:

  • Why would he do that?
  • Did he suffer there?
  • Where does the Bible say this?
  • Doesn’t Luke 23:43 explicitly say that Jesus went to paradise when he died?

And so on. Unanswered questions like these have led some Christians to simply remain silent when their congregation recites this part of the creed. Other churches have chosen to delete the phrase altogether. Indeed, no other line of the Apostles’ Creed has received so much pushback from modern evangelicals. In 1991, theologian Wayne Grudem wrote an article titled “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed.” His arguments have been echoed by many others.

Now clearly, if the Apostles’ Creed is at odds with Scripture on this point, we should go with the source that’s God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). At the same time, the Protestant view of sola Scriptura has never denied the role of creeds and confessions. Indeed, Protestant confessions like the Belgic Confession and the Thirty-nine Articles explicitly affirmed “the three creeds”: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian. The Heidelberg Catechism structures many of its questions and answers around the Apostles’ Creed. So despite not being inspired, it would seem that with a creed as ancient and basic and widely confessed as the Apostles’ Creed, you would need a pretty good reason to disagree.

Do we have such a reason in this case? Matthew Emerson thinks not. Emerson is a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, executive director for The Center for Baptist Renewal, and blogger at Biblical Reasoning. And in his new book, ‘He Descended to the Dead’: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, Emerson argues that the doctrine of Christ’s descent, besides being the ancient faith of the church, rests on a firm biblical foundation and has great practical significance. As such it ought to be retrieved by those who don’t currently confess it, and better understood by some who do.

‘He Descended to the Dead’: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday

Matthew Y. Emerson

IVP Academic (2019). 290 pp.

‘I believe he descended to the dead.’ The descent of Jesus Christ to the dead has been a fundamental tenet of the…

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