January 25, 2020

“He Descended into Hell”

Harrowing of Hell (icon), Kroup

By Chaplain Mike

He descended into hell.

The Apostles’ Creed

Today, we present several readings related to this most controversial article of the Apostles’ Creed, which expresses words appropriate for this Holy Saturday. I encourage you to contemplate these perspectives and discuss your understanding of this article of the faith from your own tradition and study.

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

• Luke 23:43 (NASB)

Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, ‘He ascended’ — what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

• Ephesians 4:8-10 (NKJV)

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

• 1Peter 3:18-22 (NKJV)

For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.

• 1Peter 4:6 (NASB)

The Harrowing of Hades, Dionisius

He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions“.
It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!
It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what can not seen!

• St. John Chrysostom, Paschal Homily

Today Hades tearfully sighs: “Would that I had not received him who was born of Mary, for he came to me and destroyed my power; he broke my bronze gates, and being God, delivered the souls I had been holding captive.”

O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!

Today Hades groans: “My power has vanished. I received one who died as mortals die, but I could not hold him; with him and through him I lost those over which I had ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began, and lo, he raises them all up with him!”

O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!

• Holy Saturday Orthodox Liturgy
A Triddum Sourcebook, p. 66

Descent to Hell, Buoninsegna

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”

• Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday
In The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
And having harrowed hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win…

• Edmund Spenser

While according to medieval theologians the descent into hell was regarded as an act by which Christ, with His soul only, entered the abode of the dead; and while according to Calvin and the Reformed generally the descent into hell is but a figurative expression for the sufferings of Christ, particularly of His soul, on the cross, Luther, especially in a sermon delivered 1533 at Torgau, taught in accordance with the Scriptures that Christ the God-man,body and soul, descended into hell as Victor over Satan and his host.With special reference to Ps. 16, 10 and Acts 2, 24. 27, Luther explained: After His burial the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, and destroyed the power of hell and Satan. The mode and manner, however, in which this was done can no more be comprehended by human reason than His sitting at the right hand of the Father, and must therefore not be investigated, but believed and accepted in simple faith. It is sufficient if we retain the consolation that neither hell nor devil are any longer able to harm us. Accordingly, Luther did not regard the descent into hell as an act belonging to the state of humiliation, by which He paid the penalty for our sins, but as an act of exaltation, in which Christ, as it were, plucked for us the fruits of His sufferings which were finished when He died upon the cross.

• The Book of Concord
Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions, F. Bente

Christ in Limbo, Giovanni

But, apart from the Creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the “chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” that he “was bruised for our iniquities” that he “bore our infirmities;” expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them, the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him. Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price — that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.

In this sense, Peter says that God raised up Christ, “having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible he should be holden of it,” (Acts 2:24). He does not mention death simply, but says that the Son of God endured the pains produced by the curse and wrath of God, the source of death.

• John Calvin, Institutes II, 16:10-11

Why is there added, “he descended into hell”?

That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings,but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44

The Descent into Hell. Basilica Cattedrale Patriachale di San Marco

The descent of Jesus into hell is, in this view, an expression of God’s universal will for salvation and a part of his cosmic victory, so that every tongue, even those “under the earth,” should proclaim that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10). In terms of the movement of the creed, the burial represents the nadir of downward descent, the ultimate expression of Jesus’ sharing in the human condition, even to the depositing of the flesh in the soil like a seed (John 12:24; see 1Cor. 15:35-41).

• Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, p. 175

More Resources:

An excellent lecture by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, reviewing the Eastern and Western traditions at the orthodox blog, Glory to God for All Things.

A series of posts reviewing Archbishop Alfeyev’s book, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective, by Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed.


  1. And very timely, the interview you mentioned with the Pope where he answered questions posed by various people from around the world has one on this:


    ” Holy Father, the next question is on the theme of Jesus’ death and resurrection and comes from Italy. I will read it to you: “Your Holiness, what is Jesus doing in the time between His death and resurrection? Seeing that in reciting the Creed it says that Jesus, after His death, descended into Hell, should we think that that will also happen to us, after death, before going to heaven?”

    A. First of all, this descent of Jesus’ soul should not be imagined as a geographical or a spatial trip, from one continent to another. It is the soul’s journey. We have to remember that Jesus’ soul always touches the Father, it is always in contact with the Father but, at the same time, this human soul extends to the very borders of the human being. In this sense it goes into the depths, into the lost places, to where all who do not arrive at their life’s goal go, thus transcending the continents of the past. This word about the Lord’s descent into Hell mainly means that Jesus reaches even the past, that the effectiveness of the Redemption does not begin in the year 0 or 30, but also goes to the past, embraces the past, all men and women of all time. The Church Fathers say, with a very beautiful image, that Jesus takes Adam and Eve, that is, humanity, by the hand and guides them forward, guides them on high. He thus creates access to God because humanity, on its own cannot arrive at God’s level. He himself, being man, can take humanity by the hand and open the access. To what? To the reality we call Heaven. So this descent into Hell, that is, into the depth of the human being, into humanity’s past, is an essential part of Jesus’ mission, of His mission as Redeemer, and does not apply to us. Our lives are different. We are already redeemed by the Lord and we arrive before the Judge, after our death, under Jesus’ gaze. On one hand, this gaze will be purifying: I think that all of us, in greater or lesser measure, are in need of purification. Jesus’ gaze purifies us, thus making us capable of living with God, of living with the Saints, and above all of living in communion with those dear to us who have preceded us.”

    • Excellent quote, Martha. Thanks. And a blessed Easter to you and yours.

      • Martha, I like what the Pope has to say about Jesus having descended into Hell. I think I read somewhere that the Catholic Church is going to have the Creed read, “descended to the dead” instead of “descended into Hell.” Maybe it has already happened. I forget.

        • JoanieD, the change is to the English translation of the creed, which goes into effect this Advent.


          • Sorry, I got that backwards. The change in English is from “descended to the dead” to “descended into hell.”

          • That’s fascinating – over here (well, as far as I’ve experienced), we’ve always said the ‘old’ Apostles’ Creed, which according to that website is going to be the ‘new’ Apostles’ Creed.

            By which I mean, we’ve always said the “descended into Hell” version. So all this time the Americans have been saying something different?

            Just goes to show – should never have given up the Latin!


          • Yeah, it’s a return to a more literal translation of the Latin. The new is ironically the old! Which makes it look a lot more similar to stuff in the traditional Books of Common Prayer also!

        • Jon and Martha…that’s strange. I could have sworn it was the other way around.

          • I don’t mind any of the changes coming to the Mass except for two of the changes in the Nicene Creed. I already said I didn’t like “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” as opposed to “born of the Virgin Mary” and I like even less “consubstantial with the Father” as opposed to “one in Being with the Father.” Both changes may be more accurate to the original Latin, but both are less poetic and do not flow well. I just read an article where some folks feel the same as I do. Oh well, I will live with the changes.

    • What wonderful, hopeful words. Thanks for pointing me to them.

  2. And, seeing as how I’m old enough to have been taught about Limbo, and in accordance with “contemplate these perspectives and discuss your understanding of this article of the faith from your own tradition and study”, another quote from Dante:

    Inferno, Canto IV, lines 25-63. Virgil brings Dante into the first circle of Hell, the Limbo of the unbaptised, a state of “perfect natural felicity” (as I was taught it, meaning that there is no punishment or pains of Hell here, there is natural happiness – the freedom from pain, hunger, war, crime, sickness and the like that we on earth desire – but nothing more; they are deprived of supernatural bliss, the Beatific Vision, the sight and union with God.)

    On a purely wordly level, we would say that, given a choice between being in a state of peace and being in a state of suffering, the state of peace is more desirable, but in the world after death that is wrong. That is why Virgil says they have no hope in Limbo, since they can never achieve that union with God, and so the souls in Purgatory who do indeed suffer fierce pangs are the luckier ones, since they are already saved and are just undergoing final purification.

    25 Here, as far as I could tell by listening,
    26 was no lamentation other than the sighs
    27 that kept the air forever trembling.
    28 These came from grief without torment
    29 borne by vast crowds
    30 of men, and women, and little children.
    31 My master began: ‘You do not ask about
    32 the souls you see? I want you to know,
    33 before you venture farther,
    34 ‘they did not sin. Though they have merit,
    35 that is not enough, for they were unbaptized,
    36 denied the gateway to the faith that you profess.
    37 ‘And if they lived before the Christians lived,
    38 they did not worship God aright.
    39 And among these I am one.
    40 ‘For such defects, and for no other fault,
    41 we are lost, and afflicted but in this,
    42 that without hope we live in longing.’
    43 When I understood, great sadness seized my heart,
    44 for then I knew that beings of great worth
    45 were here suspended in this Limbo.
    46 ‘Tell me, master, tell me, sir,’ I began,
    47 seeking assurance in the faith
    48 that conquers every doubt,
    49 ‘did ever anyone, either by his own
    50 or by another’s merit, go forth from here
    51 and rise to blessedness?’
    52 And he, who understood my covert speech:
    53 ‘I was new to this condition when I saw
    54 a mighty one descend, crowned, with the sign of victory.
    55 ‘Out of our midst he plucked the shade
    56 of our first parent, of Abel his son, of Noah,
    57 and of Moses, obedient in giving laws,
    58 ‘the patriarch Abraham, and David the king,
    59 Israel with his father and his sons,
    60 and with Rachel, for whom he served so long,
    61 ‘as well as many others, and he made them blessed.
    62 And, I would have you know, before these
    63 no human souls were saved.’

  3. “…and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore Amen; and have the keys of hell (hadÄ“s) and of death (thanatos).” Rev 1:18

    It would have been the understanding of first century people that Jesus had to go to Hades to get these keys. Hades & Thanatos were actual gods to the Greco-Roman world. John makes a statement that he has fought and defeated these gods. Indeed He did and was victorious.

  4. If anyone is around (not going to their own evening services) and is interested, the Holy Saturday Vigil is being streamed live from Rome right now (er – 8 o’clock GMT time, 9 o’clock Italian time, no idea what American time is but pretty much right now):


    The order of service booklet is up on the Vatican website to follow along, but this being the Vatican, of course it’s all in Italian:


    Watching this myself before heading off for our own parish service tonight 🙂

    • Martha, thanks so much for posting this. Because you did so, I was able to watch most of it here in Tucson, Arizona. My parish service doesn’t begin for another 4 hours.

  5. The original post cites Bente’s introduction but not the Lutheran Confessions. Our Lutheran Confessions have little to say about Christ’s descent into hell beyond confessing it in the Apostles’ Creed. In line with the Creed, we see it as part of Christ’s exaltation, wherein He is proclaimed Lord “under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). This is to say that His descent is not part of His state of humiliation, by which He won our redemption, but of HIs state of exaltation wherein the victorious Lord Jesus Christ is exalted in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.

    Here is what the Solid Declaration, article IX of our Book of Concord says concerning the descent:

    “Different explanations of the article on Christ’s descent into hell have been discovered among some of our theologians just as among the ancient teachers of the Christian church. Hence we let matters rest on the simple statement of our Christian Creed, to which Dr. Luther directs us in the sermon that he held in the castle at Torgay in the year 1533, ‘I believe in the Lord Christ, God’s Son, who died, was buried, and descended into hell.’ Herein the burial and the descent into hell are differentiated as distinct articles, and we simply believe that after the burial the entire person, God and man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed hell’s power, and took from the devil all his might

    We are not to concern ourselves with exalted and acute speculations about how this occurred. With our reason and five senses this article cannot be comprehended any more than the preceding one, how Christ has been made to sit at the right hand of the almighty and majesty of God. We must only believe and cling to the Word. Then we shall retain the heart of this article and derive from it the comfort that neither hell nor the devil can take us or any believer in Christ captive or harm us.” (Solid Declaration IX. Tappert ed. p. 610)

  6. PS – Thank you for posting these readings on Holy Saturday!

  7. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    The passage you quote from 1 Peter is the bulk of the Epistle reading in the traditional BCP’s holy day lectionary for Holy Saturday (or rather, as it says in the ’28, “Easter Even”). The reading actually goes on to include the oft-ignored and highly controversial passage about “even baptism, doth also now save us.” The collect for the day appropriately says the following:

    Grant, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him; and that through the grave, and gate of death, we may pass to our joyful resurrection; for his merits, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    • No reason for that passage to be controversial any more than Romans 6:4. I’m glad you mentioned this because the Easter Vigil is a major baptismal service.

  8. Here’s a great text from the 4th century:

    O night that is brighter than day,
    O night more dazzling than the sun,
    O night more sparkling than fresh snow,
    O night more brilliant than all our lamps!
    O night that is sweeter than Paradise,
    O night delivered from darkness,
    O night that dispels the sleep of sin,
    O night that makes us keep vigil with the angels,
    O night terrible for the demons,
    O night desired by all the year,
    O night that leads the bridal Church to her Spouse,
    O night that is mother to those enlightened!
    O night in which the Devil, sleeping, was despoiled,
    O night in which the Heir brings the co-heirs to their heritage.

    (Asterius of Pontus  AD 341-400)

  9. Excellent. I love that Saint John Chrysostom quote.

    Christ’s descent into hell was to conquer death and smash the gates of hell. Some evangelical and pentecostal preachers have turned it into an extension of the sufferings of Christ, that Christ was tortured by the devil in the fires of hell (the cross wasn’t enough). One reason I am a little leery of seder meals is because I once heard a presenter state that the roasted lamb meat represented Christ sufferings in the fires of hell. It is very helpful to see these quotes from the church fathers on the subject to set things straight.

    I’d love to hear Father Ernesto’s take on this from an Eastern Orthodox perspective.

    • “One reason I am a little leery of seder meals is because I once heard a presenter state that the roasted lamb meat represented Christ sufferings in the fires of hell.”

      ????????, raised eyebrows, and other expressions of “What the hey?!”

      That’s certainly a …. unique… take on it. I can safely said I’ve never heard the like before.

      And now, since it’s well past midnight:

      Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Christ is risen!

      For our Eastern brethren who are celebrating on the same calendar this year:

      Christ is risen! Truly, He is risen! Χριστός ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

    • Dumb Ox, that could not have been a genuine seder. Sounds like some Christian—I will not even say “well-meaning”—didn’t do his homework, and/or inserted some poison into the interpretation. It’s about as helpful to Jewish-Chistian relations as saying that the blood of Christian babies gets mixed with the matzo dough.

      Go to a real seder sometime with Jewish friends, and do a bit of research first from the internet or from a haggadah. Also read from Exodus 12, and from Mark’s gospel in particular about the last supper. That was a genuine seder meal, and the various parts listed in the haggadah, for the most part, are also found in Mark’s gospel.

      Have a great resurrection Sunday.

      • I agree. I have attended seder meals since then which have been properly officiated. The point was that there a lot of false teachings among evangelicals regarding what happened after Christ died. It shows up in the strangest places. I think a significant cause is evangelical’s separation from the teaching of the early church fathers. I actually never heard or understood the significance of Christ’s descent into hell until I was exposed to Eastern Orthodoxy. Your average evangelical pastor is not likely to quote Chrysostom in an Easter sermon.

        • Good point there. I think that without a tradition to fall back on – or rather, without the knowledge of the tradition within one’s own denomination, not alone the whole of Christian history – there may be a lot of scrambling around for an explanation as to “why do we do this? what does it signify?” and a lot of strange stuff gets picked up as halfway-reasonable.

          So we should be charitable to the excesses of the past, where lacking scholarship and the resources we have, people scrabbled around for explanations and came up with the weirder blossoms of hagiography and the like.


  10. Nice compilation of relevant quotes Chaplain Mike. What are YOUR thoughts?

    • Jeff, at this point I tend to follow Calvin and am attracted toward Luther. I think the quote by Luke Timothy Johnson (a Catholic), is an excellent perspective. And the quote from the Pope that Martha contributed above is likewise attractive to me.

      That is to say, when I recite, “He descended to hell (the dead),” I am confessing that Jesus suffered for us to the fullest extent so that those who have been held in the bondage of death since the days of Adam may have life. I don’t think of it so much as an actual geographical event, though I find imagery of that to be powerful and instructive.

      I like Luther’s summary the best: “It is sufficient if we retain the consolation that neither hell nor devil are any longer able to harm us.”

      • David Cornwell says

        Luke Timothy Johnson’s perspective is excellent on this, just as it is on a variety of questions concerning the Creed and the problem of evil in the world. He makes a lot of sense on a lot of questions. He’s Catholic, but teaches at a United Methodist seminary.

  11. The first time I heard “he descended into hell (the dead)” – I was confused, where did that come from?
    The more I studied it, the more I love that line in the creed.
    I believe that line points more towards a “Christ the victor” position on the atonement. Jesus went to hell, hades, the dead, shoel, whatever you want to call it & blew the doors off the place! Jesus went to the farthest places from heaven to bring souls back into communion with him.
    If you believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, he would have needed to bring the good news to all people before his time. of course, Jesus is beyond all place & time.—-now my head hurts 🙂
    just don’t ask me what happen to Enoch or Elijah in the chariot of fire. peace.

    • Yeah, that’s why I’ve come to like that bit in the Creed a lot. My favorite Orthodox icons are the ones depicting the Harrowing of Hell.

  12. I like what Luther and Calvin say. Lean a little more towards Luther.

  13. here is one aspect of theological consideration that i do not hold firmly to. i simply hold this one as a minor or disputable matter which is open to a variety of opinions that fortunately i do not have to accept or agree with.

    i will not make a doctrinal argument for or against its consideration, but i do think Jesus’ cry from the cross about His Father forsaking Him the closest thing to descending into Hell that i could imagine…

    • Joseph, “i do think Jesus’ cry from the cross about His Father forsaking Him the closest thing to descending into Hell that i could imagine…”
      Read Psalm 22, all of it. That is what Jesus was calling to mind in the recitation. The whole Psalm.

      Indeed! The Lord is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Allelulia!

    • Warning: unlicensed and unqualified exegesis about to take place. Fasten all loose objects down. Loosen all tight clothing. Ladies, children of tender years, and persons of a nervous disposition, leave the building now. Gentlemen, remain at your own peril. Any heresy, heterodoxy, or downright wrongness is the sole fault of the author. The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the editor. Neither “Nihil Obstat” nor “Imprimatur” either applied for or obtained. Don’t blame the Pope for this one, either.

      The point of “He descended into Hell” was that Christ truly died. He did not suffer a seeming death; He did not ascend to Heaven as a human soul; He was not spared the common fate of Man, since He was and is true God and true Man.

      So in His human nature He paid the penalty that all humanity paid since the fall of our first parents. Since Heaven was closed, since even the righteous – the Patriarchs, Abel, Noah, all who had died in the covenant – were closed out from union with God, so too did the Son of David, the Son of Man, suffer in Himself the full penalty and taste all the bitterness of death.

      He, too, descended to Hell, to Sheol, to the Underworld. He, too, died fully as a human and underwent the wages of sin which is death. But He overcame death by yielding to it. By becoming a prey, He was a victor. He won, not as the world wins, by force of arms, by legions of angels, by the worldly standards of what is a king (as He explained to Pilate) but by complete obedience, by undertaking and undergoing in His own flesh all our common woes and ills, even to death, even to shame, even to disgrace, even to being forsaken of God, divided from the Father, exiled from Heaven, going down to the common world of the dead.

      And in so doing, He broke down the gates, trampled the infernal banners underfoot, stretched forth His hand and grasped the righteous dead who had been waiting in expectation, and drew them forth with Himself. Man and God were reconciled, Heaven was opened, the sword of the cherubim turned against our first parents was blunted and now is the sword of mercy, not judgement.

      He descended into Hell, the third day He rose again from the dead. He will come in glory, to judge the living and the dead.

      Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

      • Martha: thanx for the more detailed explanation. i am quite familiar with most, if not all, teachings about Jesus’ descent into Hell, the realm of the Dead (Hades), Sheol, even a stop to Abraham’s bosom. i am not adverse to the various traditional understandings of the concept, i just do not hold any one of them tightly as a core tenet of my faith or the way the theological expansions of the concept have been shaped thru Church history. nothing negative in my understanding or lack of appreciation for the concept, but it is not firmly fixed in my understanding of just exactly how it occurred. the historical development of the concepts of Hell, Hades, abode of the Dead, Abraham’s bosom, have been embellished to a point to where i wonder what is really worth extracting from their teaching? i suppose in an apologetic sense the concept has some value as a doctrinal framework. it has never been an important aspect of my faith even though i professed the Apostle’s Creed many, many, many time for many years. what was the historical import of it being included in a Creed? how did it develop? i may look into it at some later date during my journey thru a systematic theology class. but right now it is a back burner consideration for me…

        • Personal thoughts here, Joseph, but I think it was included in the Creeds for a very definite reason.

          As you may know, there was a lot of what I’ve seen called “alternative Christianities” floating around during the first few centuries when the early Church was growing – we know them better as “heresies”, but modern scholarship (or rather, some modern scholars) are more sophisticated than that.

          Several of those heresies were Gnostic or Gnostic-inspired, which meant that they shared a denigration of the material/fleshly in relation to the spiritual. So the orthodox had to hammer it home again and again: no, He was really God. No, He was also really Man. No, He really died.

          That last was a favourite – as St. Paul says “We preach Christ crucified; to the Jews, a stumbling-block, to the Greeks, foolishness.”

          For the Greeks and other pagans it was foolishness because no god really died. Half-gods underwent a kind of death, as Dionysius (born of the mortal Semele) in some traditions did, or Hercules (who underwent an apotheosis on his funeral pyre where his mortal part was ‘burned off’ and his immortal part ascended to Olympus). But a god did not really die (except if we take, for instance, the Cretans who exhibited the tomb of Zeus, but the Cretans were considered weird in various ways).

          So if Christ was a demi-god, this was fine, but to say He was a god who died – this was crazy talk.

          And there were at least one heresy where Christ did not really die on the cross; take your pick as to whether (a) Judas was crucified in his place (b) this was only in seeming, since Christ did not have a real mortal body (c) the mortal Christ died but the divine Jesus did not – that is, the two natures were split and it was only the poor schmuck who was the human son of Mary who died, the divine spirit that inhabited him just took off.

          Faced with that, the early Church did stick this into the Creed: yep, really died (not just in seeming or sticking some other mortal with the death). Yep, this means died like a human – including going down to Hell (no special taken up to the abode of the gods). Yep, really came back in the glorified body. Sorry, not negotiable, you have to believe this to be a Christian.

          There’s a Noh play by W.B. Yeats called “The Resurrection” from 1931 and although he certainly was not a conventional Christian, he expresses three points of view in the persons of the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Syrian, who are hiding in the upper room with the Apostles after the crucifixion.

          These three express the three understandings that the world can have: the Hebrew maintains that Christ was a great prophet, a man, who was taken possession of by God. The Greek, in contrast, maintains that the gods do not interact with humans like that, that Christ instead never had a body but was a phantom.

          When they hear the first news of the resurrection from the women, they don’t know what to think, but the Greek is reassured by the notion that Christ is a phantom – that is how he can pass through matter like the stone of the tomb or the door of the room. If he was really flesh – that would be dreadful!

          But the Syrian remonstrates with them both – what if they’re wrong? What if – for the Hebrew – this is really God in the flesh – and for the Greek – what if the flesh is real?

          What if something has come to overthrow both the understanding of religion as has always been known, and the rational world of the Greek?

          The play ends with Christ appearing to the apostles and Thomas putting his hand into the wounds, and the Greek is appalled/exalted to discover that “The heart of a phantom is beating!”

          • Martha, your responses and explanations have been uniformly excellent. Thank you!

          • Martha: again, thanx for the detailed explanation. the death of Jesus, or His full humanity not replaced or diluted at all with His full deity not a theological issue for me. His actual ‘death’ on a cross not ever questioned. the why of His death has been refined thru the years as the more involved doctrinal reasons have been shaped, challenged, revisited by the big 3 Christian faith expressions.

            the ‘descent into Hell’ imagery & the details of what happened there something i do not have firmly affixed in my mind. again, it is simply a consideration i do not accept as promoted by those much more apologetically minded than myself. He suffered. He died. was buried. rose again. Hallelujah! what happened in the spiritual realms more of a side note or addendum of additional details that have been shaped by traditions that needed to ‘fill in’ the gaps more-or-less from what we have as sparse scriptural references.

            do i think the imagery or details of what took place behind the scenes during the time Jesus’ body in the Tomb fallacious? not at all. i simply withhold my acceptance until i can truly look into the historicity of the teachings & their arguments pro & con.

            it will be similar to my skepticism regarding transubstantiation as a doctrinal point, or if true, the need then for a priestly class only that can perform the miraculous change. or if only the actual portion that is eaten/drank/consumed the real elements while even the smallest drop or particle not consumed simply remains bread+wine. and what is imparted to the partaker then? if truly the Body & Blood of Jesus vs. simply bread & wine for those of non-Roman/Eastern Orthodoxy, then shouldn’t there be a distinct difference in the people partaking? at least those of Roman/Eastern Orthodoxy should have the greater proportion of weak, sick & dying as Paul cautions in 1Cor 11:29-30?

            not to revisit the communion/Eucharist discussion here, but these are simply issues that i withhold conclusions about. i understand the different explanations provided & appreciate them for what they are, but it does not provide the explanations that answer all questions to my satisfaction.

            since the journey of faith is one of discovery & seeking & questioning & using our intellectual capacity to analyze, it does make for a spiritual adventure each must pursue with the understanding one has. i know my current viewpoints are not the final ones yet to be shaped & concluded. i also know that the sum of my theological conclusions not fully realized this side of the veil. at this point in my journey i have no problem stating my doubt about faith or traditions or teachings. it is not a matter of being ignorant of them, just a part of me that withholds final acceptance until more information or experience or divine revelation forthcoming…


  14. Thank you so much for these. I’m a new Christian (about 6 years) and have only attended Baptist Churches. You just don’t learn or talk about these things. We’re too worried about who’s smoking and drinking beer after church and if they’re REALLY saved to worry about this crazy Bible stuff 😉 Just kidding (kind of) but you’ve got to be able to make fun of yourself sometimes. I was fortunate enough to start reading some Catholic bloggers fairly early in my Christian journey so I’ve picked up a lot from them. I love the focus on early church writings I can find here. Excellent stuff…we miss so much in our churches 🙁 And for what it’s worth, I found Internet Monk because I was trying to figure out why the heck Baptists have such a problem with alcohol. Micheal’s article on drinking and the church was perfect. I still go back and read it on occasion. My husband is a wine sommelier and works in food and beverage in hotels so we feel a little beat up and out of place sometimes. But his dad is a Baptist preacher so…….I know it’s complicated. I need a drink LOL.

    • I am glad that internetmonk has been helpful to you and your husband, Alison. There is so much to learn about early Christianity. I want to spend more time reading about the first 300 years. I was reading online about the council that Constantine requested in 325 which came up with the Nicene Creed. The article said all 1800 bishops were invited and they could each bring 2 priests and a deacon. It says around 300 bishops showed up and if they each brought three people with them, that was a gathering of around 1200 people. Can you imagine the conversations and arguments that went on as they all tried to come to a consensus?! It’s amazing that anything came out of it at all.

    • Glad you’re getting some help from the liturgical tradition 🙂

      We who have grown up in these churches don’t appreciate what we have, I think; there is so much richness, so many resources, and we just take it for granted.

      As JoanieD says, Nicea must have been a bear-pit. 300 theologians all arguing over what the meaning of ‘is’ is – no wonder we say the Holy Spirit keeps it all going, because if it was up to humans, it’d have sunk centuries ago!


      • Josh in FW says

        I wonder how much truth there is to the legend that St. Nicolaus (aka Santa) punched Arius during an argument at the Council of Nicea.

        • Some of the more “muscular Christianity” type apologists (and we have ’em on this side of the Tiber, too) like to put it about that St. Nicholas punched Arius.

          The tradition, when you look at it, is more restrained and says merely that he slapped him on the cheek. He may or may not have done so in reality – as Joanie says, imagine over 300 clergy all yapping at once! – but I think it was just a way of symbolising the orthodox opposition (as represented by Nicholas).

          It’s a great story, though 🙂

          Like the one about all the machinations around Athanasius, when he was the sole hold-out and every kind of effort was being made to persuade or, failing that, discredit him, up to accusations of murder:

          “Eusebius next moved to enlist the dissident Meletians. They tried to impeach Athanasius on trumped up charges. The Meletians claimed that the bishop had exacted a tribute of linen for use in his church, sent gold to someone named Philomenus who was suspected of treason, and authorized one of his deputies to destroy a chalice that was being used for the Eucharist by a Meletian priest named Iskhyras. Athanasius was cleared by the emperor of all these accusations. Next he was charged with the murder of a Meletian bishop, Arsenius. Everyone knew that the bishop was in hiding, and he ignored the summons to court.

          Athanasius was compelled to appear before a council convened at Tyre in 335. The panel was packed with enemies and Arians, who made further charges and brought up old ones such as the broken chalice. Athanasius is credited with a keen sense of humor, which helped him in confronting his adversaries. After his accusers produced a hand that they said Athanasius had cut off the murdered Arsenius, Athanasius is said to have produced the living Arsenius in court. First pointing out his face, he then drew out from the bishop’s cloak first one, then the other hand, and said, “Let no one now ask for a third, for God has only given a man two hands.”

  15. Interesting note from today’s sermon: God rested on the seventh day (Saturday). The work of salvation was completed on the sixth day (Friday).

    • You know, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Jesus did say “It is finished” on the sixth day, and on the seventh he rested before the resurrection on Sunday. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Josh in FW says

      great observation, thanks!

    • My son (age 16) commented in the car today. “Okay, we have Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. What do we call Saturday? Mediocre Saturday?” Nice to hear the Sabbath idea.

      • Always heard it called “Holy Saturday”, but I suppose that’s not exciting enough for you young thrill-seekers 😉

      • How about “Silent Saturday?” You have Good Friday with all the drama and horror of Jesus being crucified. We have Easter Sunday with all the glory of Jesus being resurrected. But Saturday? On Saturday Jesus lies in the tomb and his disciples cry with sorrow, regret, pain. God seems not to have answered prayers or to have responded to the cries of his only Son. Silent Saturday.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        My son (age 16) commented in the car today. “Okay, we have Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. What do we call Saturday? Mediocre Saturday?”

        My old college roomie suggested “Dead Saturday”…