Fr Frank’s Faith Reflections

“He descended into Hell”

I have often been asked to explain the above phrase which occurs in the Apostles’ Creed.  It reads “…..suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead;”.  The Nicene Creed makes no mention of this descent into hell.  It reads “….he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven…”.

The Apostles’ Creed is very ancient as was mentioned in last week’s article.  Both creeds that we use at Mass go back to a time before the later understanding of heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo which some of us would be aware of from earlier times.  There was rather a sense that those who died in peace with God were in the hands of God or were journeying to God.

The ‘hell’ intended in this creed was understood as the place where those who died before Christ were awaiting his coming.  This was called limbo in later times.  Christ descends into this place in order to deliver those who were waiting for him into the hands of God.  This was usually considered not as a place of punishment but as a place where those there were yearning to go to God.  The Eastern Church speaks of this as the “harrowing of hell”.  In the Eastern Churches, there are often icons of Christ delivering the people of the old testament from “hell”.

It is no wonder that a phrase like the one we are dealing with here can be a source of confusion to people today.

The ultimate meaning of this phrase is that Jesus Christ is the saviour of all human beings – those before him, those contemporary with him and those who were to come after him.

By Fr Frank O’Loughlin


Faith Reflections


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Judith Mary

Fr O'Loughlin, thanks for your explanation of the wording contained in both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. I so enjoy your weekly input in our Parish Newsletter.

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Tony Santospirito

Thanks for that explanation fr frank. I used to feel uncomfortable when the apostles’ creed was used at Mass because of its reference to Jesus descending into hell. I thought recently that it was probably a much older creed than the nicene. Now I know

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