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Descendit ad inferos = Descended into hell???

Having swapped back to reciting the Apostles’ Creed from the Nicene Creed, it will hopefully be a good opportunity to reflect on the similarity and differences between them. One of the big differences found in the Apostles’ Creed that is not found in the Nicene Creed is the reference to what Jesus did after he was buried: he descended into hell. I’m sure there’s more than a few who have been confused by this and wondered what it really means. Therefore, this bulletin message will attempt to bring greater clarity what is meant by this and how it came to be worded in the way that it is. 


It’s good first to look at the original languages of the Apostles’ Creed, which would have been in both Greek and Latin. The Greek with English letters would be this: “katelthonta eis ta katôtata”, while the Latin version reads: “descendit ad inferos”. The English way of translating both expressions could be “descended to lower ones” or “descended to those below”. This expression relays the reality that Christ, after death, descended to the “underworld” to offer those who had died before his coming the chance to receive him in faith and experience redemption. The Latin word “inferos” is where we get the word “inferior” or “below” from in English, which does not just describe quality, as we commonly use it, but location– in contrast to “superior” or “above”.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in paragraph 633: “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell" - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into "Abraham's bosom": "It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell." Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.”


Scripture speaks to this reality in 1 Peter 4:6, claiming “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead”. Thus, the Catechism paragraph 634 concludes, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment.” Referring again to the first Letter of Peter, but this time in chapter 3, verses 18-19, paragraph 632 in the Catechism affirms: “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” This was in our second reading last week. This makes St. Paul’s line in his Philippian hymn even more illuminating: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil 2:10). Paul also refers to Christ’s descent to the lower regions in Ephesians 4:9. This whole mystery of the Creed is recognised as taking place on Holy Saturday, and one of my favourite ancient homilies from Holy Saturday actually speaks to this reality (look it up!).


This is quite a different understanding than that of the hell we typically think of in the common English use, which is the hell of what Jesus would often also refer to called “Gehenna” or “ge hinnom”, literally translated as “Valley of Hinnom”. This was not just a geographical place, but gradually took on a more symbolic meaning over time. At one point in the messy history of the people of Israel in the Old Testament, they had fallen into idolatry of the neighbouring god called Moloch. One of the primary ways of worshipping Moloch was by child sacrifice, probably by fire (2 Chron 28). The Lord obviously did not look kindly upon this, and eventually it was stopped. The Valley of Hinnom eventually became understood as the place where the wicked would instead suffer divine punishment, a place of unquenchable or eternal fire which we hear of in the Gospels and in other parts of the New Testament. This is the Hell of eternal condemnation that awaits those who use their freedom to obstinately refuse God’s invitation to love.

This first part, I’ve focused on the “what” of our belief about Jesus’ descent into hell. Next week, I’ll look at some possible explanations using language and history as to “why” this is more of a question in our day and time. Stay tuned for Part 2 in next week’s message!


I am, in our Lord, yours.

Fr. Brian Trueman



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