St. Mary's Anglican Catholic Church

Diocese of the Midwest

The fifth article of the Creed consists of two clauses. “He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.” The first clause concerning Christ’s descent into the lowest parts of the earth (Ephesians 4:9) was added in the 4th century; and it has been the source of some confusion & controversy. Some churches omit the clause altogether. Part of the confusion is a problem with translation. The Old Testament Hebrew word for the place of departed spirits is sheol; while the Greek word used in the New Testament is hades. Early English translated these words using the English word hell. The place of eternal punishment after Judgment Day is named gehenna in the NT. Hell is used to translate both hades and gehenna. However, since the 17th century the English word “hell” has come to refer exclusively to gehenna, and not hades. Thus the rubric dealing with the recitation of the Creed in the Daily Offices allows the words “He went to the place of departed spirits” to be used instead since they are of the same meaning. (BCP 15, 29)

Of course, like heaven, hades/hell is not a geographical, but a spiritual realm. Though both the 
righteous and the wicked go there at death, the righteous go to a place of refreshment, light, and peace; while the wicked go to a place of torment; and there is a great gulf between fixed between them. (St Luke 16:26) Here the departed spirits await the Second Coming of Christ and the General Resurrection, when all will enter into their eternal abode in either heaven or hell (gehenna). Thus it is an error, too often asserted, that our souls/spirits go to heaven or hell immediately at death.

What does Christ’s descent into sheol or hades mean? As fully man as well as fully divine, our Lord possessed a human soul and/or spirit, which was separated from the body at death and descended to the place where all departed souls/spirits go. Thus, Christ’s death was as real as any other man. But the death of God Incarnate could be no ordinary death. As St Peter tells us, Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the spirit. (1 St Peter 3:18) Christ’s entrance into the place of the righteous dead brought perfection to the Old Testament saints in that sheol has been transformed from a pit into a paradise through the presence of Christ among them. (Psalm 16:10: 88:3-6, 10-12) This was in keeping with the promise Christ made to the penitent thief on the cross: Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in paradise. (St Luke 23:43) The saints in hades saw in the person of Christ the realization of their long-held hope. (Hebrews 11:1-2, 13, 39-40; 12:22-24) Christ descended into hell to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God that had come into their midst as He had among His disciples on earth. St Peter mentions specifically the spirits in prison; those who lived before the Flood destroyed the earth in the days of Noah. (1 St Peter 3:19-20) Some see this as supporting the notion that there is further opportunity for coming to faith & repentance after this life; but the time to seek & find the Lord is now. (See 2 Corinthians 6:2; Hebrews 4:1-12)

There are no optional articles in the Apostle’s Creed. As we face death we can have confidence; for our Lord Jesus Christ faced death Himself for us and removed its sting. (1 Corinthians 15:55) This is the rest of those who depart this world in the faith of Christ. (See 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Philippians 1:21-23)