This is my son, Luke, sitting with his adoring younger brother, Sean.
Luke is a good kid. He’s smart and kind, though he is developing some concerning Calvinistic tendencies as a result of his education in a Reformed Episcopal context. Like many teenage boys, he is rather aloof. He is minorly obsessed with basketball, and generally too cool to exist comfortably upon planet earth. Nevertheless, so far, so good.
Last Sunday morning, however, Luke came home from church in a bit of a huff. I had stayed home because our younger son wasn’t feeling well. In walked Luke and my wife, Harriet, who informed me that our older progeny was displeased with morning worship.
“They’re preaching about the creed, and they’re leaving things out!” he said.
“The Apostles’ Creed?” I asked.
“Let me guess: they left out the harrowing of hell.”
First, let me confess to the sin of pride that my son would become so animated over a doctrinal matter such as the wording of the Apostles’ Creed. I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree after all (poor kid).
Second, this issue would never have occurred to me at fifteen years old since to that point in my life I had worshipped almost exclusively in United Methodist churches. We omit the line, “He descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed. In other words, we do not affirm that Christ descended into hell during the time between his crucifixion and resurrection in order to rescue the righteous dead. The message at my church was consistent with UM doctrine. At Luke’s school, however, they use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which does include the line in question.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
So… Is Luke justified in his indignation over the omission of the harrowing of hell, or is this much ado about nothing?
The Apostles’ Creed is a baptismal confession that developed out of what was called the Old Roman Symbol. The earliest versions did not assert that Christ descended into hell. In fact, this phrasing wasn’t adopted widely in the Western Church until the eighth century. If you want to read more about the creedal affirmation of the harrowing of hell, this article in Christianity Today provides a good starting point. As far as historic Methodist practices go, I found this article from UMNS helpful. Apparently John Wesley himself was not entirely clear on how he felt about Jesus’ descent into hell (though if this is not correct I’m sure my UM history professor friends will set me straight).
What’s wrong with suggesting Jesus descended into hell to rescue the righteous who died before his saving work on the cross? Well, there isn’t much biblical support for it, and it presupposes that all those who died before Jesus were damned, or at least in purgatory (if you believe in that sort of thing). It also seems to suggest that God could not save the righteous dead apart from Jesus’ actual descent into hell.
Why might we want to affirm it? One reason is that it teaches us that there is nowhere–even to hell itself–that Jesus will not go for us and for our salvation. That is the depth of God’s love for us. It also underscores the absolute necessity of Christ for salvation.
Luke’s doctrinal angst was soon displaced by his interest in Xbox NBA 2K18, and there will be no ecumenical council in the Watson household. But I’m glad he’s thinking about these things. I’m glad he can be bothered by something he hears in church. I’m glad he cares about the content of the faith we proclaim.
Our beliefs matter, and I thank God that he knows it.