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Recently the head of the Jesuits has cast doubt on the existence of satan, which is perhaps as unsurprising as it is sad, as there was, and is, a fashion to pretend that hell does not exist. The Nicene Creed is clear, that Christ died and ‘descended into hell’. What He did there is referred to in St Peter’s first epistle:

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)

No less an authority than John Calvin himself wrote of this:

“But we ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption…. This much is certain: that it reflected the common belief of all the godly; for there is no one of the fathers who does not mention in his writings Christ’s descent into hell, though their interpretations vary. But it matters little by whom or at what time this clause was inserted.”

One of the earliest Creeds to contain this reference was the one promulgated at Sirmium in AD 359 (Sirmium is in modern-day Serbia) which stated, inter alia:

We know that He, the only-begotten Son of God, at the Father’s bidding came from the heavens for the abolishment of sin, and was born of the virgin Mary, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled the Economy according to the Father’s will, and was crucified, and died and descended into the parts beneath the earth, and regulated the things there, whom the gate-keepers of hell saw (Job 38:17) and shuddered; and He rose from the dead the third day, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled all the Economy….

The belief that Jesus spent the interval between his death and resurrection in hades is a common feature of Christian teaching from the Apostolic Fathers onwards. This hades never means the place of the wicked but the dwelling of the righteous dead, although at times the region of the blessed is thought of as a spatial division of the netherworld. [Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:34.] It was common belief that the Old Testament saints were located at the time of the ‘descent’ in hades,[Origen, Commentary on the Psalms 9:18; Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:34; Chrysostom, Homilies on Dives and Lazarus; Augustine, Exposition of Genesis, 12:33-34.] It seems to have been almost universally accepted by orthodox Christians that Christ’s descent in some way related to their redemption. At this point two broad streams of interpretation can be discerned.

First, there is an emphasis on Christ’s preaching salvation to the Old Testament worthies. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus both cite an apocryphal Old Testament passage as proof of this doctrine. ‘The  Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and descended to preach to them his own salvation’. [Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 72; Irenaeus, Against all Heresies 3:22]. Irenaeus quotes a ‘certain presbyter’ ‘who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles that Christ ‘descended . . . below the ground, preaching His advent there also and declaring remission of sins received by those who believe in Him, … who foretold His advent … just men and prophets and patriarchs.[Irenaeus, Against all Heresies, 4:42. Cf. Gospel of Peter, vv.4lf; Origen, Against Celsus, 2:43.]

The problem with this view was that it seemed that there was little that Christ’s visit could have achieved, for it was usually combined with a belief that, with the exception of martyrs, neither the Old Testament believers nor Christians pass into the immediate presence of God until after the general resurrection. [Irenaeus, Against all Heresies, 5:31., Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 43; On the Soul, 55.]

It is hardly surprising that another view of the ‘descent’ came to predominate; this dramatically pictured Christ as the liberator of the Old Testament saints from the powers of darkness. The Odes of Solomon [J.W. Charlesworth. ‘Odes of Solomon’, in Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, Abingdon, supp. vol. 1976, pp.637-38). are explicit about this: ‘sheol saw me and was made miserable . . . and I made a congregation of living men among his dead men … and they cried, and said, Son of God have pity on us … and my name I sealed upon their heads: for they are free men and they are mine.[Odes of Solomon, 42:15ff; cf. 17:9; 311:1.]

Melito of Sardis’s Paschal Homily 68; 10 (c. AD 180)has traces of this idea where it speaks of the descent in terms of the defeat of evil. The fourth century Gospel of Nicodemus couples in dramatic fashion Christ’s descent into hades and transportation of the Old Testament saints to heaven with the defeat and casting of Satan into the torture of Tartarus. Examples could be multiplied, but by the time of the entry of our clause into the Apostles’ Creed the Western Church understood by the ‘descent into hell’ Christ’s triumph over Satan and the power of death on behalf of lost mankind.