A MISTAKE IN THE APOSTLES’ CREED???                                by Rev. Jeffrey D. Hagan, (Th.D.), M.A., M.C.C.

An important thing to remember regarding the 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 or even thousands of years?”

That’s a fair question. I too am a 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 meant 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 at the 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 commonality of the Christian faith in a summary fashion.

“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.”

Some clarification:

Let’s take a moment to clear some things up. For instance, the title itself, “The Apostles’ Creed.” This creed, or summary of essential Christian beliefs, was not written by the actual 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 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 the Apostles believed in (and many of them died for).

Another point needing clarification 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 word 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, or error in the creed, is where it states, “I believe in… the holy catholic church…” What we need to realize here is that the word “catholic” is spelled with a lower case “c.” Using a lower case “c” makes a drastic difference in the 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. 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 church universal. No single church building, or religion, 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 entitled “Basic Christian Doctrine” at a local, church-based bible college. 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’m almost positive I would not have included the phrase, “he descended into hell.” And now, knowing what we know after the fact, I know I would not have included it because 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 idea meant in any way to convey that he did.

As you can imagine, this caused a bit of an uproar in the class. Not a defensive attack against me at all, but a small outcry of concern and confusion. These students wanted to learn. They were eager and hungry for theology and the Word. So, I gave them a basic explanation as to why I believed what I believed on the issue, and promised them I’d do some quick research over the next week to show them I am definitely not alone in my view. As a matter of fact, I told them I am in quite good company with my belief and we would start class next week by going over the facts and information I would bring in supporting my stance. 

“he descended into hell.” – Let me start by simply making a brief list:

– The NIV Study Bible (footnote regarding Ephesians 4:9). 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” (emphasis added). Personally, 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 the lower earthly regions.” Especially coming from his position in the heavens above.
– Christianity in Crisis by Hank Hanegraaf (p.166, re: Ephesians 4:9-10). This is an actual quote from page 166, “[this passage] contains an idiomatic expression referring to Christ’s incarnation on the earth and not to any incarnation in hell. In fact, David used the same expression (“lower parts” or “depths of the earth”) in Psalm 139:15-16…Surely no one would conclude that David descended into hell.”
– Message of Ephesisans-Bible Speaks Today Series by John R.W. Stott (page 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 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 N.T. Commentary for Ephesians by Francis Foulkes and endorsed by William Barclay. “…whatever their meaning [1 Peter 3:19 and Ephesians 4:9-10], there seems no reason to suppose that there is this kind of reference here to his preaching to the dead. Above the highest heaven He ascended, and he had been to the deepest depths of earth. This may mean simply this earth, so low in comparison with His heavenly home…(emphasis added).” 

A very important thing to remember when reading and interpreting the Bible is one of the basic rules for hermeneutics (the science and art of biblical interpretation). We are to never build doctrine based on obscure passages. These passages 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.

What were some of the last recorded words that Jesus cried from the cross? One sentence was, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46, emphasis added). He did not say, “Satan, here I come to hell for a little while.” Jesus also cried out, “It is finished”
(John 19:30). He did not cry out, “It is almost finished. First, I have to make a quick side-trip to hell.”
Lastly, do you remember what Jesus said to the thief on the cross next to him who wound up believing in him? Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, emphasis added). 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 to you I am being sarcastic. I am being sarcastic, but the points being made are good grounds for supporting the position I hold. All of the information presented above is why I personally believe if I had been there for the composition of the Apostles’ Creed, I would not have included the phrase, “he descended into hell” regarding Jesus. 

The research I did to support my position for this paper only took about three hours. Not only that, the only resources I used were the ones I own in my personal library. Imagine if I spent the time on this topic required for a doctoral dissertation or a master’s thesis. Imagine if I were using the libraries of several graduate schools and the internet for my research. I could support my position in the form of an entire text book. But, I was able to disprove Jesus traveled to hell with just a few hours research and my personal library. Let’s take a quick look at some of the support I did uncover:

1. The editors of the NIV Study Bible (that is a lot of scholars… look for yourself)
2. Hank Hanegraaf, Apologist and President of the Christian Research Institute
3. The staff of the Christian Research Institute
4. John R.W. Stott
5. John Calvin
6. Eugene Peterson
7. The Message paraphrase
8. The New English Bible
9. The Bible Speaks Today Commentary on Ephesians
10. The Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Ephesians
11. Francis Foulkes
12. William Barclay
13. Principles of Biblical Interpretation (rule regarding “Obscure passages”)
14. Jesus Christ (Luke 23:46; John 19:30; and Luke 23:43)

Additional Support I read while researching this paper but did not use:

1. The New Testament in Modern English
2. J.B. Phillips

(please continue to the conclusion of the paper)

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 the Word Faith and Prosperity Gospel movements would have you believe. 

Check out some supporting Scripture as well: Ephesians 1:3-8; Romans 3:21-36; 4:25; Hebrews 2:14-17; 9:12,14; Colossians 1:21-22, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (emphasis added); many other passages as well.

*Copyright 2013 by Jeffrey D. Hagan. All rights reserved. 


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