An attempt to explain the Apostle’s Creed phrase “he descended into hell” and why it matters

22 Aug

Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

“He descended into hell”?

Jesus did what?

Remember that phrase from the Apostle’s Creed?

As I said in my first post on 1 Peter 3:18-22, could this be the passage from which the Apostle’s Creed bases its phrase, “he descended into hell”?

That’s what I thought when I read 1 Peter 3:18-22.  See for yourself.  Here is the text in question:

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

What do you think?  Do verses 19-20 (in bold) match up with “he descended into hell”?  Maybe.  Keep reading as we look further into this.

As I mentioned yesterday, the NIV’s translation of “Spirit” at the end of verse 18 is better translated “spirit”, so we should understand Peter as not talking about the Holy Spirit, but about Jesus, resurrected in a new spiritual form.  Peter is not saying that Jesus did not rise again physically.  Peter himself witnessed and touched Jesus’ risen physical body.  Instead Peter is saying that somehow, someway, Jesus, in a resurrected spiritual form preached to other spirits who had disobeyed in Noah’s day, and had been in some sort of prison ever since.

Ever heard that story before?  What spirits disobeyed in Noah’s day? What prison? When did Jesus do this?  What did he preach?

Scholars through the ages have debated this, providing a variety of possible answers to these questions.  I’m not going to survey those possibilities.  Instead, I’m going to take the advice I. H. Marshall gives in his commentary on 1st Peter, which is to focus on the answer I believe best fits the context.

To attempt that, look at verse 20 where Peter starts to answer some questions.  Those spirits who disobeyed long ago when Noah was building the ark?  What is Peter talking about?  Don’t remember that part of the flood story?  If so, you’re not alone.  It rarely gets told, but come to find out, there is actually a part of the flood story about this.  It is all the way back in Genesis chapter 6, and it, too, is a very strange story.  Join me as we go way back in time, a couple thousand years, to Gen. 6:1-6 and see if you can get what Peter is talking about.  Please read the passage before continuing.

How about that?  Nephilim?  Sons of God?  Angels having children with human women?  What?  The interpretation of Genesis 6:1-6 is as difficult and hotly debated as 1 Peter 3:18-22.  What is clear, though, is that there was disobedience in this story.  Whoever these creatures were, and whatever they were doing, it was clearly going against the will of God.

I think, therefore, we can see at least a little bit where Peter is getting the idea of spirits from Noah’s day who were put in prison because they disobeyed.  Maybe they were fallen angels?  We really don’t know.  But they disobeyed, and they were placed in some sort of prison for fallen angels.

And that brings us to Jesus.  Apparently, after he died and rose again in spirit, he went on a preaching mission to this prison.  We think that’s why the Apostles’ Creed says “he descended into hell”.   Assuming we are understanding this right, what message would Jesus be preaching to these spirits?

Some have said that Jesus was preaching the good news of salvation to them, giving them a second chance to follow him.  But the word that Peter uses is not the standard word for “preaching the good news”.  Peter, rather, uses a more generic word that means “to proclaim” or “to declare.”

Again, there are many theories, but if we take the flow of thought that Peter has been working on here, it seems best to understand that Jesus is proclaiming his victory over sin through his death and resurrection.

He was declaring to them that he has won the victory!

This is the good news, that through Jesus, and his death and resurrection, sin which separated us from God is dealt with, and we can be brought to God.  In other words, there is victory in Jesus!  God is doing a new thing through Jesus.  God is making things right.

Interestingly, Peter seems to make a connection in his mind at this point, and at the end of verse 20 and through 21, he keeps going with the Noah thing. More on that tomorrow!

One Response to “An attempt to explain the Apostle’s Creed phrase “he descended into hell” and why it matters”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The important connection between Noah’s flood…and baptism? | Let's Talk About Sunday - August 23, 2018

    […] passage in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:18-22.  Please see the previous posts here, here and here.  Today we are looking at verse 20, and there Peter makes a connection between Noah’s flood […]

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