Why Does the Apostles’ Creed Say That Jesus ‘Descended Into Hell’?

Stained glass window depicting Jesus’ descent into hell.

In my parish we say the Apostles’ Creed and not the Nicene Creed, and in the Apostles’ Creed it states that Jesus descended into hell. I would like some clarity if possible. Did he descend into hell? What was the purpose and why is it only mentioned in this one prayer? Is it mentioned in Scripture? – Marianne

Thank you for your great questions regarding the creed! It is helpful to understand that the “hell” spoken of in the creed is not quite the same way that we would use “hell” today. Before Christ’s death and resurrection, all who died were unable to enter into the Kingdom of heaven; there was a divide between humanity and God. As such, all the souls of the dead would descend to the realm of the dead, often spoken of as Hades, Sheol, or hell. Through Christ’s death, that barrier is overcome and we are invited into heaven. Now, in order to save those who had died before Christ did, he descended into “hell,” that is to say, the abode of all the dead souls (not the hell of eternal condemnation of those who reject God’s love).

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In going to this depth, Christ brought the souls of the dead into heaven so that they could share in his salvific death and resurrection. This hell that Christ entered was closer (though not identical) to what we envision with purgatory, a place for the dead to wait for the resurrection. Again, this hell is not the same eternal hell that we speak of in the dichotomy of heaven and hell in the final judgment, it was more the place where souls still touched by original sin went before the resurrection had occurred as they had no means to get to heaven or purgatory without Christ. Christ’s descent brought salvation to all who died before him and were unable to share in baptism and saving grace in life.

In Scripture, it is referenced when speaking about Christ’s death and resurrection in different ways. In Matthew 12:40, Christ mentions that he will have to lie in the heart of the earth for three days (which is seen as a reference to not just the tomb but hell as well). St. Paul speaks of the necessity of a descent into “the lower regions of the earth” before an ascension could take place in Ephesians 4:9. In 1 Peter 4:6, St. Peter speaks of “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” meaning that Christ had to go to where the dead were (which could only be hell) to proclaim salvation. There are many more references as well to Christ’s death and descent throughout the New Testament, but I hope these help to show its relation to Scripture.

LISTEN: What’s the Difference Between the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed is used often during Lent, so your question is likely top-of-mind during this particular season in the Church. As to why this phrase is only mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed and not the Nicene, I am not entirely sure. It could be to avoid a phrase that could confuse believers if repeated but not properly explained, it could have been a preference of what to emphasize in a different creed. Both creeds are valid, and indeed, complement each other and allow us to reflect more deeply upon the mysteries of our faith. Unfortunately, though, we don’t know as there is no written record as to why the Nicene Creed did not include this phrase.

I hope this helps to answer some of your questions. I also recommend reading paragraphs 631 through 637 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as they go even more in depth in explaining it.