Where did Jesus descend to?

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Where did Jesus descend to

“Why it is better to use ‘he descended to the dead’ as opposed to ‘he descended into hell’ in our liturgy and creeds? What is the theological understanding behind ‘He descended to the dead?’”  —  Olin S., Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Elgin, Ill.

David: Olin, the reason for the translation “descended to the dead” is because of the original languages of the Apostles’ Creed. The Greek word behind that translation is Hades, a word that was used to refer to the place of the dead. The English word “hell” is burdened with connotations that come more from Dante’s Inferno than from Scripture.

To say that Jesus “descended to the dead” is 1) to affirm that Jesus really and truly died — his resurrection was not a simple resuscitation, and 2) to assert that those who had died before Jesus was born were able to experience the person of Jesus Christ.

Good question and one that has a long history of interpretation. One could argue that this is merely a matter of semantics. Both “hell” and “dead” would seem to signify a place where relationship with God is cut off. The phrase “descended into hell” is a late comer to the Apostles’ Creed, added sometime in the fourth century. It was, perhaps, an attempt to answer the question, “Just where did Jesus go during the time from death on Good Friday to resurrection on Easter morning?” Did Jesus go to a place of humiliation and abandonment (descended into the dead), or did he go to a place of exultation to preach to the saints and martyrs eventually leading them out of the clutches of the devil (descended into hell)?

Lutheran Book of Worship chose to retain the “descended into hell” language, but Evangelical Lutheran Worship has opted for the “descended into the dead” phrase. Twenty-first century folk generally do not like the idea of punishment and judgment that the term “hell” now seems to signify. These days, people don’t talk that way and prefer not to think about punishment and judgment, even if it is true. Thus, it would seem that “descended into the dead” is a much more palatable option. 

The second verse of Luther’s hymn, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (ELW, #370), often sung during the Easter season, talks about life and death. That “the knot of sin has been undone, the claim of death is ended” means that death and its “sting is lost forever.” This means that whatever little hells we have created or might experience, either by our willful design or as unintended consequences — call it sin, our rebellion, lack of love for the neighbor, whatever — are swallowed up in Christ’s victory over the powers of the devil, all the forces of evil that defy God, and all the sin that rebels against God. Is it merely a question of semantics? I don’t think so.

From the “Frequently Asked Questions” used in introducing Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006):
  The main problem in translating the Latin “descendit ad inferna” (literally “he went down to the lower regions”) was what the traditional rendering “into hell” would imply to a modern congregation. It represents “Sheol” and has little or nothing to do with “Gehenna,” a place of eternal punishments and separation from God, which is what “hell” is generally understood to mean. The line has been subjected to various interpretations: emphasizing the reality of Jesus’ death; entering into the depth of the human condition; an abandonment by God; beginning the resurrection sequence, with our Lord proclaiming victory to the souls of the departed; doing battle with Satan. The English Language Liturgical Consultation believed that “to the dead” was the least misleading version and that it allowed the same breadth of interpretation as the original. Evangelical Lutheran Worship felt it important to retain the widely used text as a footnote.

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You might also want to read:
Descended into where?
Is there a heaven and hell?
A dangerous prayer

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