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 The Principles of Theology - Article 3

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


Of the going down of Christ into Hell.
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also it is to be believed that He went down into hell.
De Decensu Christi ad Inferos.
Quemadmodum Christus pro nobis mortuus est, et sepultus, ita est etiam credendus ad inferos descendisse.

Important Equivalents
Into hell = ad inferos


This Article was derived from the Augsburg Confession in which the statement was incorporated with the Article, De Filio Dei. It is natural to enquire why the subject should be so prominent as to have one Article devoted to it. This is probably due to the fact that the Article in its present form is the remainder of the Article of 1553, which had a reference to the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:19). This was omitted in 1563. The actual wording of the original portion was as follows: “Nam corpus usque ad resurrectionem in sepulchro jacuit, Spiritus ab illo emissus, cum spiritibus qui in carcere sive in inferno detinebantur, fuit, illisque prædicavit: quemadmodum testatur Petri locus” (“For the body lay in the sepulchre until the resurrection: but His Ghost departing from Him, was with the ghosts that were in prison, or in hell, and did preach to the same: as the place of St. Peter doth testify”). These words were written by Cranmer, and actually signed by the Royal Chaplains, but at the last moment they were omitted before the publication of the Articles. In 1553 there was some acute controversy on the subject, and it is probable that this was the cause of the omission of the latter part of the Article in 1563.[1] Between 1553 and 1563 there was evidently a tendency to a greater moderation of statement on questions connected with the future, and it is impossible to dissociate this omission from the entire omission of the Eschatological Articles, 41 and 42 of 1553. Yet even after 1563 the subject continued to be discussed, for in 1597 Bishop Bilson maintained that Christ descended to the lowest hell, there to triumph over Satan in his own dominions.

1. The Meaning Of The Word “Hell”

It is important to pay special attention to the various words associated with this subject. The Latin equivalent for “into hell” is ad inferos, “to those below,” inferi being the Latin equivalent of ἐν-ἐροι, ἐν-ἐρα(γη), meaning “subterranean.” The English word “hell” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon hellan, “to cover,” meaning the “unseen” or “covered” place. It is thus the exact equivalent of Hades, ᾅδης. Unfortunately, however, the word is now used with two different meanings.

1. The Greek Hades corresponds to the Sheol of the Old Testament. It is translated “hell,” as meaning the place of punishment, twelve times in the New Testament, and “hell,” as meaning the place of departed spirits without any reference to personal character, eleven times. It thus seems to be a general term for the unseen world. It includes the souls of the righteous as well as of the wicked, though these are separated by “a great gulf fixed” (1 Sam. 28:19; Luke 16:23, 26). In the Old Testament Hades is placed in antithesis with heaven: “It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell: what canst thou know”? (Job 11:8). It may or may not be significant that the entrance to one is always a going down, the other always a going up. To ascend to Sheol or to descend to heaven is never mentioned in Scripture. Then, too, Hades is never spoken of as the permanent abode of the righteous. Rather it is a place of gloom, out of which they are in constant expectation of a translation into the brightness of heaven (Psa. 49:15; 16:10). And it is significant that after Christ’s triumphal resurrection Hades seems to fade out of the believer’s horizon, and is not used to describe the place for the soul of a believer after the death of Christ.

2. Gehenna. Quite literally this was the Valley of Hinnom, where malefactors and offal were cast, and from its perpetual fires it became the synonym for everlasting punishment (Josh. 15:8; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31). The word is easily identified by English readers of the New Testament, since it is invariably associated with fire, or judgment (Matt. 5:22; 10:28; Jas. 3:6). It occurs twelve times. Gehenna seems to be the abode reserved for the ungodly after the final judgment.

3. Tartarus. This is found only once, and as a verb (2 Pet. 2:4). It seems to answer to the “deep” or “abyss” (Luke 8:31; Rev. 9:11), and to indicate the place of detention for fallen angels and wicked spirits until their final doom.

4. Paradise. The word means literally “a pleasure park,” and is found only three times in the New Testament (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 2:7). A corresponding word occurs three times in the Old Testament in a secular sense, meaning a “grove” or “forest” (Neh. 2:8; Eccl. 2:5; Song Sol. 4:13).

2. The Fact Of The Descent Into Hell

Various passages of Scripture have been used in this connection.

1. Luke 23:43. The malefactor asked for future blessing and received assurance of immediate happiness. This is the first time that Paradise is mentioned in the Bible in a religious connection. But it is not at all clear that we are justified in using this passage in support of our Lord’s descent into Hades. Certainly the passage was never used in early days in this connection, and it is probably best to distinguish clearly between Hades and paradise. A man in the “third heaven” or “paradise” could hardly be in Hades at the same time, and it would seem in every way best to identify paradise with heaven (Rev. 2:7). There does not seem to be any real warrant for supposing that the Jews regarded paradise as a part of Hades.[2]

2. Acts 2:27-31. See Psalm 16:10. This is the only clear passage on the subject, and it will be noticed that it simply states the fact without giving any idea as to the meaning or purpose.

3. Eph. 4:9. There are two views of this passage, some interpreting it of our Lord’s descent to earth in the Incarnation, and others of a descent into the unseen world. The passage is a quotation from Psa. 68:18, and the captives to whom the Apostle alludes seem more natural as inhabitants of the unseen world. The quotation refers to some gracious act, and is in close connection with a passage referring to gifts of ministry.

4. 1 Pet. 3:18 – 4:6. This passage is sometimes used to support the belief in the fact of our Lord’s descent into Hades, and its continuance as the Epistle for Easter Eve is thought to confirm this view. But as the passage was deliberately omitted from this Article in 1563, it is obvious that we have no right to use it here or in connection with the similar statement in the Creed. We are bound by the fact of a descent, and not by any particular interpretation of it. Before this omission the descent into Hades could only have been accepted by those who took this view of the present passage. But now we are certainly free, if necessary, from any obligation to interpret it in this way.[3]< /a>

3. The Meaning Of The Descent Into Hell

Opinions have widely differed in regard to the purpose of our Lord’s descent into the unseen world. The earliest commentator on the Articles, Rogers, has only a brief note expressive of the variety of interpretations:
“That Christ went down into hell all sound Christians, both in former days and now living, do acknowledge; howbeit in the interpretation of the Article there is not that consent as were to be wished.”[4]

The fact of the descent is clear from Acts 2:25-31, and the main difference of opinion in regard to its purpose largely turns upon the sense given to the word “hell.”

1. Some, like Calvin, regard the meaning as implying that the soul of Christ went to the place of punishment, and that there He suffered “the dreadful torments of a person condemned and irretrievably lost.”[5] This would be for the purpose of being our Saviour, that He might drink of the cup of Divine wrath against sin to the very dregs, and thereby become more perfectly the sinner’s substitute, but when the word “hell” is properly interpreted of “Hades” and not of “Gehenna,” this view, though prompted by a true desire to express completely our Lord’s redemptive work, is at once and necessarily set aside. Yet it is interesting to notice that this view was held in general by Bishop Beveridge.[6]

2. Others identify the descent with the burial, considering the phrase equivalent to the former one, “He was buried.” There is some reason to think that this was the view held by Rufinus of Aquileia, in connection which whom the Article is found in the Creed. But whether this was so or not, the Article cannot possibly have this meaning, since it clearly distinguishes between the burial and the descent. Further, there seems no doubt that the Hebrew “Sheol” ought never to be translated “grave,” for it appears invariably to mean the unseen world as distinct from both heaven and hell (considered as the place of final punishment).

3. It has also been interpreted to mean the descent into hell, properly so called, considered as a place of punishment, for the purpose of triumphing over Satan and his powers in their own dominions, Col. 2:15 being quoted in support of this view. But this is, at any rate, an inadequate, if not an inaccurate, interpretation of the passage, and it is difficult to see why our Lord should have done more than He had already accomplished on the Cross.

“Why should He descend to hell to triumph there over them over whom He had already triumphed on the Cross? Why should He go to lead captive those whom He was to captivate when He ascended into heaven?”[7]

4. The best, and indeed the only, possible interpretation is that the doctrine results from our Lord’s oneness with us at this, as at every other point. This would seem to be the real meaning of its place in the Creed, and therefore in the Article. Our Lord is considered to have satisfied every condition of manhood “for us and for our salvation.” He was born, He grew, He lived, He died, His body was buried, His Spirit went into the unseen world to await resurrection, He was raised, and He ascended. Thus, both the Creed and Article emphasise the fact, and thereby testify to the realty of His work on our behalf.

“As it stands it completes our conception of the Lord’s Death. To our minds death is the separation of body and soul. According to this conception Christ in dying shared to the full our lot. His Body was laid in the tomb. His Soul passed into that state on which we conceive that our souls shall enter. He has won for God and hallowed every condition of human existence. We cannot be where He has not been. He bore our nature as living: He bore our nature as dead.”[8]

4. The History Of The Doctrine

1. The clause, “He descended into hell,” is not found in an Eastern Creed, and, indeed, the first Creed of any kind which contains it is apparently an Arian Creed, accepted at Ariminum, 359, a Latin Creed known to us through the Greek version in Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History. The wording is interesting: “Was crucified, and died, and descended into hell, and disposed of the matters there; at sight of Whom the door-keepers of Hades did tremble.” The suggestion has been made that the clause may have been inserted in this Creed “the more effectually to blind the eyes of the orthodox.”[9] But it was not until about 400 that the Article is found in a Baptismal Creed in connection with the Church of Aquileia. Rufinus says that at that time the clause was not in the Creed of the Roman Church. So that we have this curious combination: in the Nicene Creed there is the statement of the burial, not the descent; in the Athanasian the descent, not the burial; in the Apostles’ Creed there are both. It was only gradually accepted, and then mainly through the writings of St. Augustine. In the seventh century occurs probably for the first time the form, descendit ad inferos, and after this the two forms are found. In the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States the phrase is optional, and a rubric states the interpretation to be: “He descended into the place of departed spirits.”

2. The fact of the descent, although not found in a Creed until the fifth century, was, nevertheless, used definitely in connection with the heresy of Apollinarius. It afforded clear proof that our Lord possessed a human soul, since this alone could have descended into the unseen world. It is therefore curious that this article should occur in an Arian Creed before it appeared in an orthodox one, and it is for this reason that the suggestion has been made that the Arian profession was intended to distract attention from the error of the real question between them and the Church in regard to our Lord’s essential deity.

3. It is, however, most noteworthy that much earlier than these credal statements a belief in a descent into Hades was widely adopted. It was already developed in the second and third centuries, and, indeed, the belief may be regarded as unanimous, though there was great difference of opinion as to its meaning and purpose.[10]

4. But it is important to notice that notwithstanding this widespread and detailed reference to the descent into hell, there does not seem to have been any thought of a purgatory, or of a fresh opportunity for those who had left the earth without the acceptance of Christ.[11]

5. The Descent Into Hell And The Intermediate State

Much attention has been called of late to the doctrine of an intermediate state between death and judgment, and although this doctrine is not based on the Article or the Creed, it seems necessary to consider it. While, as we have seen, the Church no longer binds us to associate 1 Pet. 3:19 with this doctrine, yet because the passage is found as the Epistle for Easter Eve it is often said that usage still indicates the Church interpretation of that passage. There can be no doubt that this was the general view of the Reformers, as seen in contemporary documents.[12] It will be noticed, however, that these passages for the most part state only the fact that our Lord’s Spirit descended into the unseen world. It is well known that the passage is one of very great difficulty, and it is natural to enquire what Christ did in those regions of death. Looking at the passage as a whole (1 Pet. 3:18 – 4:6) there seem to be two important and distinct parts of His work. He made a proclamation to the imprisoned antediluvian souls (3:18-21), and He liberated those spirits of the righteous, who through fear of death had all their lifetime been subject to bondage (4:1-6). In regard to the former of these acts there are grave differences of opinion as to the identity of “the spirits in prison.” The word “prison,” which has evil associations, should be noted, and it is also significant that the word “spirit” is never used elsewhere to describe human beings. Then, too, the word “preached” is not the usual term for the Gospel, but indicates the proclamation of a herald. It would seem, therefore, that our Lord proclaimed His victory to “the spirits in prison,” and, as the context indicates, thereby proved His supreme authority (ver. 22). But the other commission seems to be quite different. The saints who died before the Incarnation were “prisoners of hope.” They were “gathered to their people” (Gen. 25:8), but there does not seem to have been any immediate outlook after death except that which was obscure and depressing. But the death and descent of Christ into Hades wrought a great change for those Old Testament worthies, and no longer do we hear of the abode of the spirits as “down,” but as “up,” or “away.” Such passages seem to indicate the fact that great changes were wrought through the finished redemption of our Lord, that the Sheol of the Old Covenant was emptied of the saints of the former dispensation, and that on our Lord’s ascension He carried them with Him in triumph (Heb. 11:40). And then they seem to be described as “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:18, 23); that is, those old Hebrew Christians were now “made perfect,” and that with them the New Testament Christians (“the Church”) were “brought near.” Is it not possible that the widespread belief in the early Church that our Lord had released the pious souls of the Old Testament saints in Hades and carried them with Him to heaven expressed a great truth? Of course, the extravagant stories added by men’s imaginations tended to identify Scriptural truth with human fables, and in the controversies of the sixteenth century it seems pretty clear that the dread of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory led our Reformers to refrain from giving more thorough attention than they did to the Scriptural doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades rather than admit any teaching which seemed to favour the Limbus Patrum of the Church of Rome. They either ignored the truth of our Lord’s having effected any change, or else they allowed themselves to indulge in interpretations which are now seen to be impossible. But we must neither fall into the error of exalting Hades into heaven, nor into the modern danger of reducing heaven to Hades.[13]

It seems necessary to observe that this view of our Lord’s having translated the souls of the Old Testament saints by His death is not to be regarded as in any way providing an argument for another opportunity of salvation, or for the doctrines associated with future probation after this life. On the contrary, the passages are to be interpreted strictly in accordance with their context, without drawing from them any doctrine that is not fairly warranted, and in any case, it may be well to bear in mind the solemn words of a great modern writer, and to be content with them:
“It carries light into the tomb. But more than this we dare not say confidently on a mystery where our thought fails and Scripture is silent. The stirring pictures which early Christian fancy drew of Christ’ entry into the prison-house of death to proclaim His victory and lead away the ancient saints as partners of His triumph; or again, to announce the Gospel to those who had not heard it, rest on too precarious a foundation to claim general acceptance. We are sure that the fruits of Christ’s work are made available for every man: we are sure that He crowned every act of faith in patriarch or king or prophet or saint with perfect joy; but how and when we know not, and, as far as appears, we have no faculty for knowing. Meanwhile, we cling to the truth which our Creed teaches us. To the old world, to Jew and Gentile alike – and it is a fact too often forgotten – ‘the  Under World,’ ‘Sheol’ the place of spirits, was a place of dreary gloom, of conscious and oppressive feebleness. Even this natural fear of the heart Christ has lightened. There is nothing in the fact of death, nothing in the consequences of death, which Christ has not endured for us: He was buried, He descended into Hades, the place of spirits.”[14]


>>Article 4


[1] Micronius wrote to Bullinger from London, 20th May 1550: “They are disputing about the descent of Christ into hell” (Original Letters, Vol. 2, p. 561). The Bishop of Exeter also alludes to the same subject: “There have been in my Diocese great invectives between the preachers one against the other” (Strype, Annals, I, p. 348). (See Hardwick, History of the Articles of Religion, pp. 98, 137).

[2] Muller, The Christian Doctrine of Sin, Bk. 4, Ch. 2, Section 6; Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, Section 153 (English Edition): “Paradise indeed is certainly not Hades”; Salmond, Article, “Paradise” in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible: “It is not clear that the lower Paradise was ever conceived to be in the underworld, or that the happy side of Hades was called by that name.”

[3] If it is permissible to argue elsewhere from omissions, as is frequently done in connection with prayers for the dead in Article 22, it is certainly allowable to use similar arguments here.

[4] The Catholic Doctrine of the Church of England, p. 60.

[5] Calvin, Inst. Bk 2, Ch. 16, Section 10.

[6] On the Articles, pp. 126-137.

[7] Pearson, On the Creed.

[8] Westcott, The Historic Faith, p. 76 f.

[9] Heurtley, Harmonia Symbolica, p. 134.

[10] Moule, Outlines of Christian Doctrine, p. 96; Gibson, The Thirty-nine Articles, p. 175 f.

[11] Moule, ut supra, p. 97.

[12] “Then He truly died, and was truly buried, that by His most sweet sacrifice He might pacify His Father’s wrath against mankind, and subdue him by His death who had the authority of death, which was the Devil; forasmuch not only the living but the dead, were they in hell or elsewhere, they all felt the power and force of His death, to whom lying in prison (as Peter saith), Christ preached, though dead in body yet re-lived in spirit” (Catechism of 1554).
“Christum ut corpore in terræ viscera, ita, anima a corpore separata, ad inferos descendisse; simulque etiam mortis suæ virtutuem, atque, efficacitatem ad mortuos atque inferos adeo ipsos ita penetrasse, ut et incredulorum animæ acerbissimam iustissimamque infidelitatis suæ damnationem, ipseque inferorum princeps Satanas, tyrannidis suæ, et tenebrarum potestatem omnem debilitatam, fractam atque ruina collapsam esse persentiret: contra vero mortui Christo dum vixerunt fidentes, redemptionis suæ opus iam peractum esse, eiusque vim atque virtutem cum suauissima certissimaque consolatione, intelligerent atque perciperent” (Nowell’s Catechism, 1570).

[13] I am greatly indebted for the above interpretation to two pamphlets, The Gospel in Hades, by the Rev. R. W. Harden (Dublin, Combridge & Co.), and Hades or Heaven? by the same author (Dublin, William McGee), where a fuller discussion of the various passages can be seen. For a statement of other interpretations of the passage in St. Peter’s Epistle reference may be made to the present author’s The Apostle Peter (pp. 210-222).

[14] Westcott, ut supra, p. 77 f.
“There is an extraordinarily strong tradition among the Fathers that Christ descended to the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Dispensation, and preached to them, and bettered their condition. There is no other passage of Holy Scripture from which such a tradition can have originated; and it would therefore seem that the Fathers took it that those mentioned by St. Peter were but specimens, so to speak, of a class – of those, that is, who had lived and died under the Old Covenant. It may be so. But this is all that can be said. Where Scripture is silent such an inference must be more or less precarious, and though the opinion may appear a probable one, it can only be held (if at all) as a ‘pious opinion,’ which cannot be pressed upon any as a part of the faith. In any case, it would be rash in the extreme to infer from this passage the possibility of an extension of the day of grace, or an opportunity of repentance beyond the grave, for Christians, whose case is wholly different. It cannot be said that the apostle’s words afford the slightest grounds for expecting a second offer of salvation to any of those who have slighted or misused God’s revelation made ‘in His Son’” (Gibson, ut supra, p. 174).
See also Martensen, Christian Dogmatics, pp. 316-318; Litton, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (Second Edition), p. 196; C. H. H. Wright, The Intermediate State.


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