A Mistake in the Apostles' Creed??? by Jeffrey D. Hagan
An important thing to remember regarding different "creeds" or "confessions" of faith is that they were composed by mere human beings. If you grew up with the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession of Faith, or some other creed or statement, as integral to your faith, then you might be thinking to yourself, "Who are you to claim there could be a mistake in one of the statements of faith that have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years?"
That's a fair question. I too am a fallible human being no different from them. We need to remember these creeds and/or statements are not infallible. The people who composed these original documents were not infallible. These statements, or confirmations of faith, are not, nor were they ever intended to be, equated with Scripture. Most of these were created as a way to codify a particular belief system or to refute errors that had found their way into Christian teaching. Their purpose was to correct false teaching (heresy) that was being spread during their time. And, for the most part, they more than serve their purpose. They are wise, concise ways of summarizing some essentials of the faith.
The Apostles' Creed, in particular, was developed because some people among the Christian community were teaching that Jesus was not God's Son, Jesus did not rise from the dead and he was not born from a virgin. These lies needed to be confronted and therefore the Apostles' Creed was formulated as a standard to show the commanality of the Christian faith in a summary fashion.
The Apostles' Creed:
"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell, the third day rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen."
Let's take a moment to clear some things up. For instance, the title itself, "The Apostles' Creed." This creed was not written by the Apostles. It came into being years after the Apostles were gone. The authors were more like disciples of the disciples of the disciples of the Apostles. Does that fact make it illegitimate? Absolutely not. They simply took what they knew and believed to be the truth via the Scriptures and oral tradition passed on from the Apostles, developed a concise statement, and labeled it "The Apostles' Creed" because it is what they felt summarized what the Apostles believed (and died for).
Another point that should be clarified is the phrase, "...He shall come to judge the quick and the dead." This does not mean Jesus is going to return to judge those who can run the forty yard dash in 4.2 seconds and the dead. The word "quick" here is an antiquated term that simply means "living." So, what this sentence is actually saying is that Jesus is going to return to judge the living and the dead.
One last thing we need to address before moving on to what I consider to be an actual mistake, a true error in the creed, is where it states, "I believe in...the holy catholic church..." What needs to be realized here is that the world "catholic" is spelled with a lower case "c." Using a lower case "c" makes a drastic difference in teh meaning of the word. The word "catholic" simply means universal or worldwide. As opposed to "Catholic," with a capital "C," referring directly to the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, the authors were stating their belief in the church being universal, or worldwide. They were proclaiming that all who believe in Christ are part of the wider church body. We who are in Christ are connected universally and make up the worldwide church. No single church building, or denomination, has a monopoly on being the "true" church. All of us who put our faith in Christ are part of THE church.
A while back I was teaching a course I had developed entitled "Basic Christian Doctrine" at a small, church based bible college I had co-founded. One evening we were discussing the Apostles' Creed and I made the comment that if I would have been one of the individuals who took part in authoring the document I would not have included the phrase, "he descended into hell." Now, knowing what we know after the fact, it is highly debatable whether Scripture says He did or not. As a matter of fact, I absolutely do NOT believe Jesus descended to hell. Neither do I believe the passage used to derive this idean meant in any way to convey that He did.
As you might imagine, this caused a bit of an uproar from some of the students. It was not a defensive attack against me at all, but an outcry of concern and confusion as they had been raised being taught otherwise. These students wanted to learn. They were eager and hungry for theology and the Word. I used this opportunity as a teaser for the next class. I told them I would inform them of why I believed this in our next class. I assured them I am with good company in my belief and I would explain my postion, as well as acknowledge some of the supporting sources, at the start of the next class period.
"...he descended into hell."
To state my personal belief in very brief terms, I think that what was meant by Paul in Ephesians 4:9b, "...he also descended to the lower, earthly regions..." has nothing to do with hell. Hell is not mentioned whatsoever. I think that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Second Person of the Godhead, coming here, to earth, would in itself be descending "to lower, earthly regions" when compared to His majestic and glorified postion as God in heaven.
-The NIV Study Bible (footnote regarding Ephesians 9). Paul is reminding his readers of Christ's incarnation, his coming to earth, and his resurrection and ascension. "This passage probably does not teach, as some think and as some translations suggest, that Christ descended into hell."
-Christianity in Crisis by Hank Hanegraaff (p. 166, re: Ephesians 4:9-10). "[this passage] contains an idiomatic expression referring to Christ's incarnation on earth and not to any incarnation in hell. In fact, David uses the same expression ("lower parts" or "depths of the earth") in Psalm 139:15-6...surely no one would conclude that David descended into hell."
-Message of Ephesians: Bible Speaks Today series by John R.W. Stott (p. 158). "...there is no obvious reference to hades or hell in Ephesians 4:9 [John] Calvin...argued...that 'the lower parts of the earth' is a genitive of apposition or definition, that what it means is simply 'the earth,' and that Christ's descent refers to his incarnation."
-The New English Bible. This version takes the passage in the above mentioned way as well. Specifically that he descended "to the lowest, down to the very earth."
-The Message paraphrase by Eugene Peterson. Ephesians 4:9, "It's true, is it not, that the One who climbed up also climbed down, down to the valley of earth?"
-Tyndale New Testament Commentary for Ephesians by Francis Foulkes and endorsed by William Barclay. "...whatever their meaning [Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19], there seems no reason to suppose that there is this kind of reference here to his preaching to the dead. Above the hightest heaven He ascended, and he had ben to the deepest depths of earth. This may mean simply this earth, so low in comparison with His heavenly home."
Some Final Thoughts:
A very important thing to remember when reading and interpreting the Bibles is one of the basic rules for hermeneutics (the art and science of biblical interpretation). We are to never build doctrine based on obscure passages. These two passages, Ephesians 4:9b and 1 Peter 3:19, are clearly obscure. We can analyze them, discuss them, and even debate them, but there is no basis for building any sort of doctrine on them.
Let's remember what some of the last recorded words that Jesus cried out from the cross. One sentence was, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). He did NOT say, "Satan, here I come to hell for a little while." Jesus cried out, "It is finished" (John 19:30). He did not cry out, "It is almost finished. But first I have to make a quick side trip to hell."
Do you remember what Jesus said to the thief on the cross crucified next to Him who wound up believing Jesus was the Christ? Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Jesus did not say, "I tell you the truth, today you are going to paradise and I will catch up with you later. First, I have to make a pit stop in hell. I am going to hang out there for a few days and then I will be right up there to see you Mr. Thief."
Hopefully it is obvious I am being a bit tongue-in-cheek. I am being sarcastic, but the points being made are good grounds for supporting the position I, and others, hold. The above information is in part why I personally believe I would not have included the phrase, "he descended into hell" if I would have been a part of the compostion of the Apostles' Creed.
1. NIV Study Bible and its editors.
2. Hank Hanegraaff, President of the Christian Research Institute, author and host of the Bible Answer Man broadcast.
3. Christian Research Institute.
4. John R.W. Stott.
5. John Calvin.
6. The Message paraphrase.
7. Eugene Peterson.
8. The New English Bible (NEB).
9. The Bible Speaks Today commentary series.
10. The Tyndale New Testament commentary series.
11. Francis Foulkes.
12. William Barclay.
13. Mark Driscoll (founder and pastor of Mars Hill Church, author).
14. R.C. Sproul.
15. Jesus Christ (Luke 23:46; John 19:30; Luke 23:43).
16. The New Testament in Modern English.
17. J.B. Phillips.
18. Many, many others too numerous to list.
Christ's sacrificial death on the cross completely and thoroughly paid the debt for our sin. Not His death AND a trip to hell, regardless of what Word of Faith adherents might want you to believe.
Supporting Scriptures: Ephesians 1:3-8; Romans 3:21-36; 4:25; Hebrews 2:14-17; 9:12, 14 and many others.
Colossians 1:21-22, "Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil beahvior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free form accusation."
*Copyright 2013 by Jeffrey D. Hagan. All rights reserved.