January 21, 2021

More Creed Tinkering?

Note from CM: In conjunction with this post, you might want to go back and read our post from April 23, 2011, “He Descended into Hell,” in which we quoted representatives from many traditions and what they say about this article of the Creed.

• • •

It seems that N.T. Wright is not the only one concerned about the Creeds of the Church and what they contain (or don’t contain).

Last week, Daniel Burke wrote an article in the Washington Post called “What did Jesus do on Holy Saturday?” in which he examines the line from the Apostles Creed: “He descended to hell”. Though Burke admits that what Jesus did after his death and before the resurrection has been a matter of disagreement and debate throughout the history of the Church, he also affirms that “Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and most mainline Protestant churches teach that Jesus descended to the realm of the dead on Holy Saturday to save righteous souls, such as the Hebrew patriarchs, who died before his crucifixion.”

However, Burke reports that some prominent evangelical spokesmen are calling for the removal of this article from the Creed, asserting that there is no biblical evidence for Christ’s descent or the “harrowing of hell”.

On Good Friday, Jesus told the Good Thief crucified alongside him that “today you will be with me in paradise,” according to Luke’s Gospel. “That’s the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection,” John Piper, a prominent evangelical author and pastor from Minnesota, has said. “I don’t think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise.”

…Wayne Grudem, a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, says the confusion and arguments could be ended by correcting the Apostles’ Creed “once and for all” and excising the line about the descent.

“The single argument in its favor seems to be that it has been around so long,” Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, writes in his “Systematic Theology,” a popular textbook in evangelical colleges. “But an old mistake is still a mistake.”

Grudem, like Piper, has said that he skips the phrase about Jesus’ descent when reciting the Apostles’ Creed.

Roman Catholic Taylor Marshall thinks this attempt to “correct” the Creed is improper, and says so in his article at Called to Communion. In fact, he states that it is “the fruit of heretical Christology.” Among the errors feeding rejection of this creedal affirmation are an insufficient doctrine of Christ’s humanity, an opposite error that Christ actually completed his suffering in hell, and an insufficient appreciation for the Beatific Vision and how it applies to Christ. In Marshall’s article, he gives eight verses from the Bible on the descent into hell and concludes by challenging evangelicals who want to excise this point from the Creed:

How then do we respond to John Piper? He’s simply not biblical. He fundamentally does not understand what Christ means by “paradise” and its relationship in the Jewish mind to Sheol or the Underworld. In my book The Crucified Rabbi – Judaism and the Origins of Catholic Christianity, I dedicate an entire chapter to this topic. Chapter 13 is titled Jewish Afterlife and Catholic Afterlife. It focuses on the Jewish traditions of the afterlife and how Catholicism incorporated these ancient and correct doctrines. The reader learns why Orthodox Jews still pray for the dead. Why do Catholics and Jews pray for the dead? They share the same worldview! This is all news to Protestants who lack knowledge of Second Temple Judaism and Church History.

If I were able to dialogue directly with John Piper, I would challenge him directly on this point. Why does a first century book like Enoch (quoted in the New Testament) depict Sheol or Hades in a way that conforms to Catholic theology, but is in open contradiction to Piper’s Baptist theology? Why is it that Catholicism has continuity with the Judaism of Jesus Christ, but Anabaptistic theology has no continuity whatsoever — either theologically or chronologically?

Daniel Burke’s article in the Washington Post also reminds us of the importance of this doctrine in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He cites Peter Bouteneff, a theology professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., who says, “The icon that represents Easter for us is not the empty cross or tomb, it’s Christ’s descent into Hades.”

In the Orthodox liturgy for Holy Saturday, these powerful words are spoken:

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.

When we say the Apostles Creed in our Lutheran congregation, we say “He descended to the dead.” This is a more literal and precise translation of the original article. There is a distinction in Christian theology between Sheol, the realm of all the dead, just and unjust, and the place of final condemnation after the Judgment. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

“Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”:”It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

The Catechism has perhaps the best summary of the doctrine when it says: “Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

Or, more succinctly, hear Luther: “Through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed…”

Now Luther was completely honest in saying he could not conceive how this actually occurred. However, he encouraged this: “It is appropriate and right that we view it literally, just as it is painted, that He descends with the banner, shattering and destroying the gates of hell; and we should put aside thoughts that are too deep and incomprehensible for us.”

In my opinion, the “evangelicals” who are advocating removal of this article from the Creed would remove a powerful part of the true story of Christ, and shrink our imaginative capacity to revel in the great drama of our Lord’s triumph.


  1. Aidan Clevinger says

    I guess I’m a little confused as to the purpose that He descended into Hell. When I was catechized, I was never taught that it was to rescue the souls of the righteous dead. I was always told that He went into the abode of the unrighteous dead and proclaimed His victory of their sin and over the devil, that it was a preaching of Law, rather than Gospel. Particularly since 1 Peter specifically mentions the people who died at the time of Noah, people who had committed great sins and had ample time to repent, but refused.

  2. This is the dumbest thing Piper has ever said.

    Here’s the best Lutheran paper I’ve ever encountered on the doctrine. It considers whether the descent is the occasion for Christ’s universal proclamation of the Gospel to all: “Christ would descend into Hades, preach the gospel, and lead those who believed out of the gates of Hades and into heaven. And again, to push the point, Sheol is the holding ground for those living even today who die under the former dispensation of law and sin, whose lives are overwhelmed by the encroaching curse of sin, death, and the devil.”


    • Sadly, this is far from the dumbest thing Piper has ever said. I can probably think of ten dumber things off the top of my head…

      • I go out of my way to avoid him and most megachurch pastors, so I don’t doubt for a second that you are right.

  3. Grudem appears to not want to keep it just because it is old? But getting rid of it just based on the fact that it is “confusing” is not a good reason either.

    I am very leary of, even against, tinkering w/ the creeds. Perhaps that is due to my paleo-orthodox leanings.

    • IIRC, in his commentary on 1 Peter (Tyndale, formerly IVP: http://www.amazon.com/Peter-Tyndale-Testament-Commentaries-Numbered/dp/0830842470/) Grudem argues or concludes (in an Appendix) that the verses about preaching to those who had perished in the flood (1 Peter 3:18-20) refer to the Spirit of Christ (= the Holy Spirit?) preaching repentance to them through Noah while they were still alive.

      • What’s the “prison” then?

        • From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirits_in_prison

          Modern Christian interpretations

          Wayne Grudem (1988) identifies five commonly held views on the interpretation of this verse:

          “View 1: When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in spirit’ was in Noah preaching repentance and righteousness through him to unbelievers who were on the earth then but are now ‘spirits in prison’ (people in hell).”[3]
          “View 2: After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation.”
          “View 3:After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, proclaiming to them that he had triumphed over them and their condemnation was final.”[4]
          “View 4: After Christ died, he proclaimed release to people who had repented just before they died in the flood, and led them out of their imprisonment (in Purgatory) into heaven.”
          “View 5: After Christ died (or: after he rose but before he ascended into heaven), he travelled to hell and proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels who had sinned by marrying human women before the flood.”[5]

          These views revolve around the identity of the spirits in prison, the time in which the preaching took place, and the content of the preaching.[6]


          [3]^ Grudem notes: “‘St. Augustine, Letter 164, chs. 15-17; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part 3, question 52, art. 2, reply to obj. 3; Leighton, pp. 354-366; Zahn, p. 289; W. Kelly, Christ Preaching to the Spirits in Prison (London: Morrish 1872), pp. 3-89; DG Wohlenberg… etc.
          [4]^ Bo Reicke The Disobedient Spirits & Christian Baptism: A Study of 1 Peter 3:19 and Its Context 1946
          [5]^ The First Epistle of Peter: an introduction and commentary
          [6]^ Stanley E. Porter, Michael A. Hayes, David Tombs Resurrection p110

  4. David Clark says

    The UMC hymnal gives two versions of the Apostle’s Creed. The one normally recited by my congregation and the “Traditional” version (that’s what the hymnal calls it, so I’m using quotes to show I’m using the language of the hymnal). The one normally recited contains no mention of any descent to the dead or to hell, while the “Traditional” version does. I’m just happy that any traditional (note lack of scare quotes now) creed is recited at all, so many churches no longer recite anything as a statement of belief. Or even worse, make up creeds designed to be relevant and hip for our times, whatever that means.

    Is this the Protestant version of Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic fights over the filioque?

    • The UCC hymnal gives another version of the creed: “I believe in God, the father-mother almighty…”
      Protestants have a tendency to subject tradition to their preference. It’s annoying and a bit ideologically arrogant. Not that progress isn’t possible, but it probably won’t be on issues so close to the core. I really don’t think we’re gonna get it right better than Christians of the first three centuries; we aren’t being killed for the faith, they were. Personally, I believe the Filioque may be going out of style with Protestants, I know many Anglicans have begun leaving it out, and I know at least one Lutheran who is not convinced of it.

      • Ctrent1564 says

        David Clark and Miguel:

        With all due respect, both of you have the wrong Creed. The Filoque is part of the Latin-Western Version of the Nicene Creed not the Apostles Creed which the phrase “Christ descended into hell” is stated. The Apostles Creed in its basic form is found in the writings of St. Hippolytus of Rome, i.e. The Apostolic Tradition [circa 215 AD] and it is the Baptismal Creed of the CHurch of Rome and is still used today at the Easter Vigil for catechumens and it is used during the Easter Liturgical Season where the Church asks its children to reaffirm their Baptism.

        • Ctrent1564 says

          David and Miquel:

          An addendum to my original post. While I see the link you both are making regarding Piper and other Reformed Protestants and their desire to edit the Apostles Creed and it being akin to Rome and the Orthodox Church and the filoque issue. The filoque was taught by Western Fathers such as St. Hillary of Poiters in his work “The Trinity” [circa 356] which was before the Council of Constantinopile [381 AD] which added the more formal Creedal statements to the original version of the Nicene Creed [325AD] regarding the Holy Spirit for all that the original version of the Creed as expressed in 325 AD stated was that “I believe in the Holy Spirit” nothing more was said until 381 AD and it wasn’t until the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD that the Creedal statements regarding the Holy Spirit added at the Council of Constantinopile were accepted as binding on the entire Catholic Church, Latin and Greek.

          Other Western Fathers who taught the Filoque would include St. Ambrose of Milan [probably implicitly and St. Augustine [very explicitly], both in 4th century would also attest to the filoque being part of the Latin-Western understanding of the procession of the Holy Spirit.

        • I believe we were discussing the relationship of Protestantism to tradition generally, and are well aware of the differences between the Nicene and Apostles creed (I prepare our church’s liturgy every week). The subjection of either to personal fancy is a bad idea. …and even Lutherans own the Apostles Creed as the Baptismal creed. Anglicans use it in their confirmation rites as well.

          • Ctrent1564 says


            Fair enough and I agree what an individual changing the Creed is nonsense, which is the case with certain Reformed/Evangelicals. However, the filoque was not changed by one person and is a legitimate expression of the Latin Theological Tradition and even some Eastern Fathers taught it was well.

            And also, to clear up something in my 2nd post, it was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD that the Creedal statements added at Constantinopile were accepted as normative for the entire Church. Thus, given that St.’s Hillary of Potiers, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo had clearly taught the Filoque well before 451AD, one can’t make the claim that Rome added the filoque incorrectly as it was well established in the Latin Tradition well back into the 4th century.

          • Thanks for the history lesson. I did not know that some Eastern fathers accepted the Filioque. Now I don’t feel so bad saying it. Nor did I know it dates back to Augustine. It still seems a little inconsistent with my understanding of Scripture, but that is certainly the easiest hurdle for me to overcome at this point (which does not sound very Protestant of me 😛 )

          • The filioque is an old error. And an old error is still an error.

            Triple Autotheism is heresy.

          • Ctrent1564 says


            On what authority do you base this on. The Council of Constantinopile [381 AD] was not recognized as a binding ecumenical council until 451 AD at the COuncil of Chalcedon. At the Council of Ephesus, the Creed was re-affirmed in its Council of Nicene Form [325 AD]. The Filloque was already well established in Latin Trinitarian Theology well before 451 AD [Tertullian, while still an orthodox Catholic, as far back as 200 AD teaches it] and in the 4th century, Western Fathers such as St. Hillary of Potiers, St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Augustine all clearly teach it.

            In the Eastern Church, the filoque is taught by St. Ephiphanius of Salamis [i.e. Cyprus] St. Cyril of Alexandria

            On a related note, all of the Western Fathers also taught the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son ]a Patre per Fillium as opposed to Filoque] and while they maintained the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, the procession from the Father was more premminent [e.g., as taught very clearly St. Augustine.

  5. A while ago I heard an interview with Piper in which he was asked what the coming threats to orthodoxy were, and his opinion was that we were going to have another big struggle over a correct doctrine of the atonement.

    With each passing day though it appears that Piper and people lined up with him find a different innovation to add to the doctrine of the Trinity (see how they re-interpret it to fit into a complentarian-worldview and in doing so get dangerously close to some form of Subordinationism).

  6. Joseph (the original) says

    although raised Roman Catholic & the reciting of the Apostle’s Creed a regular part of the Mass, i am not one to think such a teaching/concept/tradition is a critical tenet of the Christian faith…

    however, since i am leaning more toward Univeralism as i grow older, Rob Bell’s book Love Wins & the Catholic teaching of Purgatory actually makes more sense to me now…

    i do think though that the visual imagery of the afterlife has been embellished since we do not have a detailed record of what it consists of & what to expect. and most of the images of Hell are so draconian i think revisiting the reasons for painting it that way is why Bell’s approach is so refreshing to me…

    it may be a silly argument to strike such a reference from the Creeds. yet it could play both ways. i think there should be some major striking out of Calvinist theological conclusions that have no business limiting God’s ability or will to do or not to do something. talk about silly theological delineations…

  7. When we say the Apostles Creed in our Lutheran congregation, we say “He descended to the dead.” This is a more literal and precise translation of the original article. There is a distinction in Christian theology between Sheol, the realm of all the dead, just and unjust, and the place of final condemnation after the Judgment.

    I think the problem comes over protestant tendency to confuse “hell” with the “lake of fire”. “He descended to hell” is quite precise, as long as you know that hell lake of fire.

    • dropped my angle brackets… last line should read… hell not equal to lake of fire.

      • Joseph (the original) says

        the realm of the dead makes much more sense. and then Purgatory does too. not that i am convinced yet though…

        i think that Jesus went to the realm of the dead simply because He tasted everything we experienced. His entry into that realm with a far different result though. but i am not sure the details can be considered certain as they are taught today. or that such a teaching considered a central ‘truth’ where it establishes orthodoxy & all other considerations null-and-void…

  8. I heard Eastern Orthodox priest link the harrowing of hell to Psalm 139, and to me it makes perfect sense. There is nowhere we can to escape Jesus. He is committed enough to us to go with us into death.

    I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
    If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave,[a] you are there.
    If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
    even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me.
    I could ask the darkness to hide me
    and the light around me to become night—
    but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
    To you the night shines as bright as day.
    Darkness and light are the same to you.

  9. Chaplain Mike,
    There’s a problem with the second link in your article. It looks like you have the “http://” at the end of the address instead of the front.

  10. Is this just a reformed thing? The pentecostal churches I attended definitely affirmed Jesus’ descent into hell.

    • Same goes for Baptist churches I have been a part of, though they tend to get a little tongue tied over “one baptism for the remission of sins.”

      • The KJV consistently translated “hades” as “hell”. Thus, those groups which maintained use of the KJV affirmed Jesus’ descent into “hell”. However, the wrong understanding is expressed when the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, AR use lights to indicate flames coming out of the tomb in which the dead Messiah is placed…


  11. Sorry, John Piper. The guys with tongue-shaped hats win this argument.

  12. Isaac (except when I'm Obed) says

    From what I understand, Purgatory is not the same as Hades, right? From what I understand, Hades is the “realm of the dead” without regard to final destination whereas Purgatory is a stopping point for those destined for heaven that they would be purified of any lingering sin contamination. Or am I wrong about Hades?

  13. Two things:

    (1) First of all, Piper is assuming that the second comma should be added before “today” and not after in the translation of Lk 23:40.

    (2) Secondly, Mt 12:40 unambiguously states that Jesus expected himself to be in the “heart of the earth” following his death, but what do Piper and Grudem think Jesus meant by this expression if not the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol? But if they agree that according to Mt 12:40 Jesus expected himself to be in Sheol following his death then what is their objection to the line “he descended into hell?”

    • Also, John 5:

      Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

  14. Ok… just another reason to keep the Eastern Orthodox pissed off at us Catholics, first the Filoque controversy, then the storming of Constantinople, then the spawning of all these wayward children of Western Theology and now this ; )

    Why are we thinking about messing with the Creed when most of the evangelical world doesn’t even pay attention to it anymore?

    Seriously though, a purely non-theological view states thaat when Died and rose from the dead he opened the gates of heaven and with him went the souls of those who departed before him, held in Hades until His coming.

  15. Sheol (translated Hades in Greek though the two concepts are not exact parallels — the Greek one being in some ways more primitive and less developed) represented the state of the dead — both the righteous dead and the unrighteous dead. By the time of Christ, Sheol had become divided in Jewish thought into the abode of the righteous dead (bosom of Abraham or paradise) and the abode of the unrighteous dead. But it was all Sheol. Death universally ruled humanity. So yes, as a human being, Jesus descended into Sheol (along with the thief — so the conflict is imagined). Death thought it had swallowed a man, but discovered too late it had tried to consume the uncontainable God. In his descent, Christ also fulfilled Psalm 139 (138 LXX). “If I should descend into Hades, you would be there”

    Just a few quick thoughts.

  16. David Cornwell says

    I’d hate to cite Piper as an authority in a theological paper or position. I’ll admit I’ve never studied this, but in general hold to the what Church has taught historically. I tend to agree with Phil M. and the linkage of Psalm 139.

  17. On Holy Saturday, the Office of Readings includes an ancient homily about Jesus going to Hades, meeting Adam and Eve and leading them with tears of joy out of Hell. It’s a moving homily, here’s the link. The reading is further down the page after 3 psalms and a reading of scripture.


    He has gone to search for our first parent, 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 the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

  18. cermak_rd says

    Orthodox Jews may pray for the dead but not so most Reform who are ambiguous on the afterlife. Fact is, if you look at the Torah, the oldest Jewish literature, you see no reference to an afterlife or even Hell. You start to see it in the later books and prophecies, probably culminating in the books of Maccabees that aren’t even in the Jewish canon. I tend to think of it more as a corruption of the original tradition due to exposure to Greek and other cultures than a development of the tradition.

  19. In the Wizard of Oz, we have this line about the Wicked Witch of the West: “As Coroner I must aver, I thoroughly examined her, and she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” Contrast that with the line from the Princess Bride: “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.”

    The line about the descent into Sheol/ Hades/ Hell is in the creed to make it clear that Jesus was most sincerely dead, not just mostly dead. In other words, it’s there to close off the possibility of a docetic view of the crucifixion, that Jesus only seemed to be dead. If Jesus did not go to the place that all the dead go, then his status as fully human comes into question.

  20. I used to wonder about the comment to the thief about being with him in Paradise “today.” But, if like some people believe and teach, Jesus first went to Sheol and led out all those who had been waiting for him, that could have been instantaneous and then they were all in Paradise.

    I think our problem is that we don’t really have any understanding of eternity. We think our loved ones will die and then be in some place we may call Heaven but which is a temporary place until Jesus returns and then God will renew all creation. That may all be true, but it may also be true that our loved ones are immediately part of the eternal Heaven on earth that we don’t see yet. The Eternal life that Jesus talks about may begin for all of creation upon the death of human beings. You may say, “Well, that’s not possible because the earth is still here just as messed up as it has always been.” But that is what we see since we are not yet in that Eternal life with God. We may have brief smatterings of what that life is like, but we “see darkly.”

    It’s all good to me. If I am going to wait around with Jesus for all creation to be renewed, that sounds wonderful. If all creation being renewed begins as soon as I die and enter into that eternal life, that sounds wonderful too. My loved ones won’t be “stuck” here back on earth….it will be the beginning of Heaven on earth and the end of time as we know it so they will all be there too. It boggles my mind and I really don’t know how it will all work out, but I know it will be wonderful.

  21. Christiane says

    I will take the ancient understanding of the Church over people like Piper and Grudem ANYDAY.

    The Orthodox Doctrine of the Incarnation is not something either Piper or Gudem would adhere to, in the sense of the fullness of the Doctrine, no. They wouldn’t see the implications for all of mankind in it, whereas the theologies of Piper and Grudem would never see in it the full ‘connection’ of Christ with all mankind, including Adam and Eve.

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