What we now know as the Apostles Creed descended from an earlier form of the creed, known as the Old Roman Symbol. The beginning of the creed dates from as early as the second century. We do not have any direct evidence that it was penned by any of the apostles, but it is an admirable summary of the apostolic teaching.
And so now we come to an odd one, one which reveals a fairly large gap in cosmology between a child of the biblical era and a child of the modern era. It is also a testing point, sometimes, for the most stalwart inerrantist. Wait, what? You think that an actual star came down and picked out a house in Bethlehem for the magi? And all God’s people, along with our Christmas cards, said, yup.
Cosmology answers the question of what kind of world you assume yourself to be living in. Is the cosmos mostly empty space, punctuated here and there by flaming gases and dead hunks of rock? And with our miniscule lives tucked away in some miniscule corner of it? Or is the whole thing an intricately designed artifact, one that fits easily in the palm of God’s hand?
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the virgin, Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. On the third day He rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Summary of the Text
“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
Jesus knew that He would die and go to Hades (Ps. 16:10). He also knew that He would be there for a brief time. It would be sometime less than four days—Lazarus began to see corruption after four days (John 11:39), and the episode with Jonah told Him exactly how long it would be. He knew on the strength of Psalm 16 that He would not be abandoned there. Peter, preaching on the day of Pentecost, quoted Psalm 16 as a proof of the resurrection. “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell [Hades, translating the OT Sheol], neither his flesh did see corruption” (Acts 2:31). Not only was this a prediction of a resurrection, but of a resurrection after a comparatively brief time in the grave. The Christ was to be in Sheol/Hades, but not for long.
Distinguishing Some Terms
The final judgment, the eternal lake of fire, is what Jesus called Gehenna. But this is different from Hades, which should be understood as the intermediate place of departed spirits. The Old Testament name for this place was Sheol. We distinguish Sheol/Hades from Hell proper because John tells us that death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).
We are sometimes thrown off because many translations of the Apostles Creed say, “He descended into hell.” The problem with this is that the Lord did not descend into the lake of fire, into a place of torment. The Apostles Creed was originally written in Greek, and the word at this place is Hades, not Gehenna. The confusion occurred because Hel was the name of the Norse goddess who ruled over the underworld. In other words, our word Hell used to mean something more like Hades.
Symbolism . . .
In Scripture, the ultimate description of the final things is given to us in symbolic language. But do not play with this like a liberal. Liberals say that something is “symbolic” as a coping mechanism, trying to get the reality being represented to go away. But what is greater, the symbol or the reality being pictured? If the lake of fire is literal, it is really bad. If it is figurative, then it is actually far, far worse.
The word Gehenna comes to us from the Valley of Ben Hinnom outside Jerusalem. That was the dump, the landfill, where fires were constantly burning, and where worms never went extinct. It had been the place where Molech worship had once been conducted.
In the Old Testament Era . . .
In the time before the Messiah came, the expectation of the godly was to die and go to Sheol. Jonah (most likely) actually died and cried out to God from the depths of Sheol (Jon. 2:1). The psalmist expected that Sheol would swallow him up (Ps. 18:5; 86:13; 116:3).
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, they both died and went to Hades. In that parable, Hades was divided in two by a vast chasm. The side where Lazarus was had the name of Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:23), while the rich man was in torment in Hades. Nevertheless, communication occurred across the chasm.
In our text, Jesus said that He was going to be three days and nights in the heart of the earth. But He also told the thief on the cross that He would be with him in Paradise that same day (Luke 23:43). So then, Abraham’s bosom was also known as Paradise. To the Greeks, this would have been Elysium. This is where Jesus went, and preached across the chasm.
The Greek word for the lowest pit of Hades, the worst part, was Tartarus. This word is used once in the New Testament (without any redefinition, mind). Peter tells us this: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [Tartarus], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).
What Did the Lord Do While There?
While in Hades, the Lord preached. But the preaching was not “second chance” preaching. Rather the word used is one used for heralding or announcing, not the word for preaching the gospel. “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Pet. 3:19–20).
He Holds All the Keys:
The Bible teaches us that Jesus is the king of all things. The devil is not the ruler of Gehenna—Jesus is. The lake of fire was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). Furthermore, Jesus holds the keys to Hades as well. “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell [Hades] and of death.” (Rev. 1:18). When the Lord rose from the dead, He led captivity captive (Eph. 4:8)—all the saints in the Old Testament who had died and gone to Abraham’s bosom were transferred when Paradise was moved (Matt. 27:52). And by the time of Paul, Paradise was up (2 Cor. 12:4).
That at the Name of Jesus:
And so we preach Jesus, king of Heaven, and Lord of Hades. Hades is the place where He emptied out Paradise, and Hades is the place He will throw into the lake of fire. He is the king, I tell you. And so we proclaim Him, such that at the name of Jesus every knee might bow, whether in Heaven, or on earth, or under the earth (Phil. 2:10).