Why Does the UMC not have He Descended into Hell in their version of the Apostle’s Creed? | 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Ephesians 4:7-10)
Quotes are funny things, especially when they are attached to popular or historical figures. One of my favorites, particularly because I spent so many years as a graphic designer, is “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” As someone who took elements from my own art and the art of others and incorporated them into new works and designs as part of the creative process, I loved this quote. For years I attributed it to Paul McCartney because I heard him say it in an interview, if memory serves, when I was a teenager. So, I assumed the quote originated with him and when I quoted it, I would add that it came from McCartney.
But McCartney was just being a good artist.
The version of the quote he stole came from Pablo Picasso who said, “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal,” which was itself a variation on a similar quote from composer Igor Stravinsky. Most likely, Stravinsky stole the idea from something that T.S. Eliot wrote which was,
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet ‘borrows. Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what the, take, and good poets make it into something better or at least different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly, different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually, borrow from authors remote in time or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
And T.S. Eliot stole what he wrote, in part, from an article on Shakespearean criticism by W.H. Davenport Adams, who wrote, “…great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.” This quote has had a life of its own to say the least and I got the idea of talking about it from the question of the week for our You Asked for It series: Why does the UMC not have He Descended into Hell in its version of the Apostle’s Creed?
I think there are two reasons. The first has to do with the original versions of the creed itself. There are versions that are dated as early as 150 A.D. Historian Justo Gonzalez writes,
Its basic text was put together, probably in Rome, around the year 150. It was then called ‘symbol of the faith.’ The word ‘symbol’ in this context did not have the meaning that it has for us today; rather, it meant a means of recognition, such as a token that a general gave to a messenger, so that the recipient could recognize a true messenger. Likewise, the ‘symbol’ put together in Rome was a means whereby Christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies circulating at the time, particularly gnosticism and Marcionism. Any who could affirm this creed were neither Gnostics nor Marcionites.
One of the earliest verifiable versions of the creed comes from Marcellus, a bishop who wrote this version around 340 A.D.
- I believe in God almighty [Ruf. the Father almighty]
- And in Christ Jesus, his only son, our Lord
- Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
- Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried
- And the third day rose from the dead
- Who ascended into heaven
- And sitteth on the right hand of the Father
- Whence he cometh to judge the living and the dead
- And in the Holy Ghost
- The holy church
- The remission of sins
- The resurrection of the flesh
- The life everlasting. [Ruf. omits.]
The phrase ‘he descended into hell’ doesn’t appear in the earliest versions of the creeds and in fact does not appear in the creeds until most likely the eighth century AD with the Latin phrase, “descendit ad inferna,” which literally means ‘he went down to the spirits of the lower regions’ and does not refer to hell as the realm of eternal punishment. Professor Ted Campbell says it this way, “We have always said this relied on a misunderstanding of the word ‘Hell.’ Previous generations of pious Methodists could hear it as ‘the place of eternal punishment,’ and find it impious to have Jesus there. I know that the Latin of the creed, descendit ad inferos, really just means that ‘he went to the-place-where-dead-people-go,’…”
That brings us to the second reason is that there is no concrete biblical/scriptural basis for it. To create a basis for the English phrase and meaning ‘he descended into hell’ requires a mixture of proof-texting or taking verses out their context and some slight mistranslation. The word we translate into hell is Hades in Greek and is understood as being She’ol in Hebrew. Both places are considered places where all the dead go when they die, not just those who were morally bad, though some distinction was made by certain groups of Jews. For instance, Jesus said in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus said to the rich man,
…remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.
This follows or leads to the idea that the underworld or place of the dead in Jesus day was one that was divided. All the dead went down to She’ol, also another word for the grave, but in the theology of some, they went to different parts.
I say that because when we look at the relevant part of our scripture for the day, we find a connection,
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
Notice there is no mention of hell or the grave but the idea of spirits in prison. This is the reference to a well-known, well loved book in the first century called the Book of Enoch. In this book, the writer traces all the woes of the world back to the people living at the time of Noah, particularly the wicked angels or Nephilim who seemed to be stirring up all the trouble. The Book of Enoch celebrates the victory of God, that has or will happen over these spirits in the future. What most scholars believe the writer of 1 Peter is saying in bringing this up is that Jesus, who has been made alive in the spirit after the resurrection, went to these spirits and proclaimed to them that they had been defeated for all time and their power to do evil and hold evil over others was broken. The following verse about Noah is an allusion to the idea of baptism as a type of dying and being raised with Jesus in victory over our past lives and past selves. The idea of Jesus going to hell – the place of eternal torment – and preaching to or gathering in the lost or left souls there is simply not in the Bible. One scholar says it this way, there was,
A whole mythology arose about Jesus rescuing people from the netherworld after the crucifixion. The Gospel of Nicodemus, which dates to the third century and did not make the Bible cut, offers a narrative of Jesus retrieving Adam and other Old Testament figures from Satan’s clutches.
When we put all this together, we have a phrase added to a creed well after it was originally written. This phrase has progressively been mistranslated out of the context it was originally written because the words don’t translate easily from one language to another with the idea intact. We have gone from ‘a place where all the dead go’ to ‘a place of eternal torment’. Add to that the understanding that it doesn’t speak of Jesus going to hell anywhere in the Bible and our understanding as United Methodists to leave it out is correct. While the idea behind it is comforting and speaks to a good thing – that there is nowhere and no limit to what Jesus is willing to do for a lost soul – Jesus going to hell isn’t in the Bible and therefore is not in the creed.
Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume One – The Early Church to the Dawn of the Refomation. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1984.
Hahn, Heather. Did Jesus descend into hell or to the dead? 22 04, 2011. https://www.umnews.org/en/news/did-jesus-descend-into-hell-or-to-the-dead (accessed 01 16, 2018).
Johnson, Bob. Why is “(Jesus) Descended to the Dead” Omitted from the Methodist Apostles’ Creed? 04 28, 2015. https://methodistheritagetour.com/2015/04/28/why-is-jesus-descended-to-the-dead-omitted-from-the-methodist-apostles-creed/ (accessed 01 16, 2018).
Wright, N.T. The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
 Adams, W H Davenport. The Gentleman’s Magazine; Imitators and Plagiarists; London Vol. 272, Iss. 1938, (Jun 1892): 613-628.
 (Gonzalez 1984, p.63)
 (Bettenson 1963, p.23)
 (Bettenson 1963, p.23-24)
 (Hahn 2011)
 (Johnson 2015)
 Luke 16:25-26
 1 Peter 3:18-20
 (Wright 2011, p.81)
 (Wright 2011, p.82)
 (Hahn 2011)