The Nicene Creed was drawn up at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in the fourth century AD in response to various heresies that had been troubling the church. It has since served as the basic statement of orthodox Christian doctrine as well as the confession that is liturgically recited during the service of the Eucharist. The origins of the Apostles’ Creed are a bit more obscure, but it too is an ancient confession of Christian faith, from the days before schism divided the church and it has become the traditional confession for use in baptism. Thus these two creeds have for most of Christian history been connected with the two sacraments ordained as such by the Lord Himself. They have a similar structure and wording, and for the most part the differences consist of places where the Nicene Creed goes into more detail about what is stated more succinctly in the Apostles’ Creed. There are a couple of places, however, where the Apostles’ Creed contains something that is not present in the Nicene. The example that is of particular interest to us today, on Holy Saturday, is the phrase that occurs between “Was crucified, dead, and buried” and “The third day He rose again from the dead”, between Good Friday and Easter so to speak. That phrase, as rendered in the Book of Common Prayer, is “He descended into hell”.
More recent English renditions of the Apostles’ Creed usually substitute a phrase like “to the dead” for “into hell.” This might please squeamish people who don’t like talk about hell, but it makes this phrase redundant as it no longer expresses anything that was not already covered by the phrase immediately preceding it. Worse, it removes from the creed explicit reference to a doctrine hinted at by Scripture, required by sound theology, taught by the fathers of the church, medieval theologians, and the Reformers, traditionally part of the liturgy for Holy Saturday of both the Western and the Eastern churches, affirmed in the third of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church and which is a familiar image in medieval Western and Byzantine religious art. The traditional English name for this doctrine is the “harrowing of hell”.
The name of this doctrine requires some clarifying explanation otherwise it could be very misleading. Today the word harrow refers to a piece of farming equipment that is hitched to a tractor and pulled over a field to smooth out the soil. Where you would use a hoe and a rake on a small garden plot you use a harrow on a large field. As a verb to harrow now refers to the act of using this implement. This is not what “harrow” means in the harrowing of hell, however. The orthodox doctrine is not that Jesus went down to the underworld and prepared it to grow flowers and vegetables. In the older form of English that was used when this doctrine was given its name, to harrow meant to ravage, plunder, despoil, and lay waste. It described the actions of an invading army.
The word hell also needs to be explained. I do not mean that it needs to be explained away, as much modern theology tries to do. I mean that because Christian theology uses the word hell to describe two overlapping, but nonetheless quite distinct concepts pertaining to the afterlife, we need to be clear as to which one is meant. The first of these concepts is that of the place of punishment for the unredeemed wicked after death and the Last Judgment. Putting aside the question of whether the punishment referred to is everlasting conscious torment or annihilation as irrelevant to this discussion, this is the place Jesus refers to as Gehenna and which is described as a lake of fire burning with brimstone by St John in the Apocalypse. This is not what the creed is referring to when it says that Jesus “descended into hell”.
The other concept described by the word hell, and the one which the word’s etymology suggests, is that of a dark underworld, where the spirits of the dead go, regardless of their righteousness or wickedness. This is what the Hebrew word sheol that is used in the Old Testament referred to. It is what the Greek word hades refers to. The Greeks named the underworld after the deity they believed ruled it, Hades, whom the Romans called Pluto, and who won the underworld when he and his brothers Zeus and Poseidon overthrew the Titans and divided the universe between themselves. The Scandinavians and Germans had a similar concept of the land of the dead, and they too named it after the deity to whom they ascribed its rule. This was Hel, daughter of Loki. The English word hell is derived from the Norse word and just as the writers of the New Testament adapted the word hades as a Greek equivalent of sheol, so English Christians adapted the word hell. This is the hell to which Jesus descended between the cross and the Resurrection.
It is important that we be clear on this. Christ’s descent into hell was not, as some have mistakenly taught, for the purpose of submitting Himself to the torments of the damned. Christ did indeed suffer for our sins, the innocent for the guilty, but this was His work on the cross which He finished with His dying breath. His entrance into hell was that of a victorious conqueror ransacking a defeated foe and setting its captives free.
The way the doctrine was traditionally taught, the souls of the Old Testament saints and the souls of the damned alike went to hell (sheol/hades) where the souls of the saints awaited the coming of their Redeemer. Jesus, after defeating sin and death on the cross by taking the former upon Himself and embracing the later, descended into hell as a victor, breaking the gates into pieces and smashing the infernal stronghold, where he announced to the saints that the long awaited day of their release had come and brought them up out of hell, leaving only the devil and the damned behind. In art this is typically depicted in one of a number of ways, such as Jesus leading a procession of the redeemed out of the hellmouth, meeting Adam and Eve and other recognizable Old Testament saints in limbo, or standing with the gates of hell broken beneath His feet. (1)
This doctrine is not spelled out for us as such in the New Testament, although it is inferred in several passages, most notably that which the Book of Common Prayer assigns as the epistle reading for Holy Saturday, 1 Peter 3:17-22. This lack of explicit statement has led some modern Protestants to deny the doctrine, which denial, had the sixteenth century Reformers been able to foresee as the outcome of their teaching of Sola Scriptura, would undoubtedly have caused Martin Luther to throw an inkpot and curse profusely and John Calvin to burn someone at the stake. Sound Christology is incomplete without this doctrine.
The picture painted for us in the Scriptures of Christ’s activity beginning with His Incarnation in His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost and culminating in His Ascension into heaven and sitting on the right hand of the Father is of a journey that takes Him from the highest place to the lowest, from the zenith to the nadir, and then back again. When Christ re-enters the highest place, the glory in heaven that He shared with His Father from eternity past He is crowned with even greater glory for having made the journey. The first part of the journey, the downward path is called His Humiliation. The second part of the journey, the upward path back to Heaven, is called His Exaltation. Both are explicitly taught and emphasized throughout the New Testament and this picture would not be complete had the journey not taken Him to the lowest place, possible, i.e., hell. Consider the words of St. Paul in the ninth verse of the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians. “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth.”
Paradoxically, the descent into hell has historically and traditionally, in the teachings of the church fathers, the medieval scholastics, the eastern and western churches, and the most orthodox of Protestant theologians, not been regarded as the final aspect of Christ’s Humiliation but as the first stage in His Exaltation. This does not negate what we just said about the descent being necessary to complete the picture of a journey from the highest place to the lowest and back again. The inclusion of the descent in the Exaltation, the upward part of the journey, rather than the Humiliation, the downward part of the journey to which it would seem more logical to place it, is due to the nature of Christ’s entrance into hell. Again, He did not enter hell in defeat to suffer the torments of the damned, but in victory, to break the stronghold of the enemies of God and man – sin, death, and the devil – which He had defeated on the cross, and to rescue from their clutches those of His own who had preceded Him there.
The descent into hell is needed not only to round off the picture of Christ’s downward and upward journeys but to present His saving work in its fullest, most heroic, aspect. When we speak of what Christ did for us in His sacrifice on the cross we speak of Him paying our debt of sin or of His bearing the judgement for our sins as our substitute. All of this is perfectly sound theology but the language of banks and courts cannot do aesthetic justice to Christ’s saving mission. For that we need the old doctrine of the harrowing of hell.
We should not be so quick to “update” the Creed to get rid of words and concepts that offend our modern sensibilities. They were put there for a reason and if, in this case, they are inferred from Scriptural references to Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison or His statement that He would be in “the belly of the earth” for as long as Jonah was in the belly of the whale, they are good inferences. Their absence would leave a gaping hole in both Christian theology and Christian art and we would be the poorer for it.
(1) One of the most famous examples is the fourteenth century fresco by Andrea da Firenze on the north wall of the Spanish chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In this painting, Jesus is standing on the broken gate of hell, which has fallen on a devil and trapped him, while He reaches out His hands to an old man, presumably Adam, at the head of a crowd of haloes saints, while hiding in a cave in he corner the demons glare at Him.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca