Teen Angst, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Harrowing of Hell

This is my son, Luke, sitting with his adoring younger brother, Sean. Luke and 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).


Photo of Luke, courtesy of his younger brother, Sean

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).


Harrowing of Hell, 12th century, artist unknown, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.




14 thoughts on “Teen Angst, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Harrowing of Hell

  1. Dr. Watson,
    Interesting you and Luke should reflect on the Harrowing of Hell. In the last few years I’ve been doing a good deal of reading in Eastern Orthodox thought. While there are multiple variations of the Harrowing of Hell within the Tradition, they still affirm it. With the focus on theosis , the primary assertion is that through the descent into Hell and his harrowing of it, Christ defeated Death (“You have trampled down Death through your death”). Sin (capital “S”) exercises its reign through Death (capital “D”).
    Interestingly, the Orthodox in general insist that Death is the great enemy of humankind, but bank everything on the defeat of Death through the Cross (“the tree of the Cross has become the Tree of Life”). These days when I read 1 Corinthians 15 or the texts in Hebrews (the atonement passages) the texts appear in a slightly different light. Serving as a pastor among people for whom life is precarious, Christ’s battle with Hell, Death, and Sin brings new (actually, more ancient) reading.
    Though Dante can be incredibly imaginative, I always loved the part in Inferno when he notices the rupture that runs through Hell made by the triumph of Christ and the Resurrection.

  2. The word “hell” is a translation of the Latin or Greek words for the realm of the dead, and so the translation of the English Language Liturgical Consultation, “he descended to the dead,” is accurate and most appropriate.

    I think there is significant biblical support for this clause in the Apostles’ Creed because it is grounded in the apostolic message that Jesus Christ was raised “from the dead.” Note that the apostolic message is usually expressed this way throughout the New Testament rather than that Jesus Christ was raised “from death.” Of course, the reason for this apostolic expression is that Jesus Christ was raised for all humankind as the “first fruits” (1 Cor. 15:23) or the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18). If Christ’s resurrection was for all the dead, then his death was in solidarity with all the dead. This clause in the creed underscores the solidarity of Christ with all the dead in his descent into death, “descent” being a symbolic image (Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9).

    The mystery is that when Jesus Christ enters the realm of the dead, so to speak, there is no time. Thus the efficacy and meaning of Christ’s descent to the dead and his solidarity with the dead belongs to no time but pertains to his ministry to all the dead of all times. His descent to the dead is not a temporal event, but it is a Christological event in that it signifies that Christ is in solidarity with all the dead and that we can speak meaningfully about “the dead” only because Christ died their death and was raised for their sakes and they are not forgotten by the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).

    Thanks, David, for sharing your son’s sound theological instincts!


  3. My home church worships about 350 on Sunday morning: Martin First United Methodist Church, Martin, TN.
    We have added the words, ” He descended into hell” back into our proclaiming the Apostles’ Creed.
    Great conversation…!!!

  4. I would be proud too! I like your thoughts Dr. Watson, as well as those of “Tim Whitaker” here. (I can’t help but notice that by coincidence there is a United Methodist bishop by that name, and such solid theology is what we should be getting from all our episcopal shepherds, but I digress.)

    The latter comments demonstrate why we can justifiably use that line. It is consistent with raising “from the dead.” It underscores Jesus’ solidarity with all humanity who have to reckon with death in all its aspects (not just the experience itself, not just the cessation of life, but whatever it is that comes afterward), and that seems to have been understood from the earliest Christian times.

    The original post illustrates why it would be particularly helpful in defending the faith: because it underscores the absolute *necessity* of Jesus Christ. God to actually *do* something in order to rescue fallen humanity. Obviously, Jesus *did* something on the cross, and in rising from the grave. But his descent to the dead in between those two points makes the work more complete. It makes the picture more complete because what we are reciting with the full version includes active, intentional activity on our behalf. Dying on the cross, in isolation, might be seen as something that “happened” to Jesus. Being raised from the dead, by itself, might be seen as something that “happened” to Jesus. But descending to the dead is something Jesus *did* -something that could only be done in the context of also suffering unjustly and then rising to defeat death.

    Maybe I am not connecting the dots quite right, but all of that is just to say I think you are right that Jesus’ descent to the dead underscores the *necessity* of Christ’s work. If we ever teach on the creed then it allows us to explain all the dire fullness of what “death” and “the dead” means and what exactly humanity needs to be saved from. I think it is well-known that we mainliners love to skip over all that stuff.

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