Where did Christ descend to? 

If you worshiped in an Anglican Church between 1552 (when the Creed was first printed in full in the Prayer Book) and 1979 you would answer “he descended to hell” because in the Apostles’ Creed as you would have learned it, that is what it says: “[He] was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell.” But if you have been worshiping in an Anglican Church that used the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer you would have answered instead, “to the dead,” for this is how the language of the Creed was altered in Rite II of the 1979 BCP, “[He] was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.” 

So, which is it? “Hell” or “the dead”? The BCP 2019 rendered it as “the dead.” To understand why, some back story is needed.

Some Linguistic Context

This wording (“he descended to the dead”) was not a unique creation of the drafters of the 1979 BCP. It was created in 1975 by the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET), a pan-denominational group convened in the heyday of the ecumenical movement that sought to bring cross-denominational unity by establishing translations of liturgical prayers that could be used by all Christians. (The ICET is now called the ELLC, and it should not be confused with the exclusively Roman Catholic liturgical body, the ICEL.) 

The ICET translated the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, etc. These translations were accepted by a large portion of mainline Churches, and incorporated into each Church’s liturgical book, sometimes with small tweaks or footnotes (as in the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship). 

(Note: The ICET/ELLC text itself has been updated since its original 1975 drafting, no longer including the paraphrastic insertion “by the power of” in the line concerning the Holy Spirit’s work in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and replacing the male pronoun “his” [as in “Jesus Christ his only Son”] with the proper noun “God’s” to reflect contemporary ideals of gender-neutrality. This updating unfortunately takes the axe to the root of the project in the first place, since it displaces the notion of a fixed standard of translation for ecumenical use.)

Now, the stated commitment of the BCP 2019 Taskforce was to present ancient liturgical texts in the best English translation of the original language as possible, while maintaining as much continuity with familiar translations as possible. To this end, for instance, while the base-text was the 1975 ICET text, “by the power of” (included in the 1979 BCP) was removed because it is not in the original text. But “His” was retained, because it is in the original text.

The translation of “he descended to the dead” was kept for this reason: It is the best familiar English translation of the Latin phrase descendit ad inferos.

So, the Latin form of the creed that was used in the Western Church didn’t get fixed into its exact form until the 8th century AD, but it was 95% fixed in Latin by the fourth century in a form that creedal scholars call “R,” which was a genetic descendant of 2nd century Greek Christian Baptismal “creeds,” which very well may have their origin in the time of the Apostles (hence, “Apostles’” Creed).

Descendit ad inferos (or, as some versions have it, ad inferna; in either case, it mirrors the Greek katelthonta eis ta katotata) is a clear reference to the teaching of Ephesians 4:9, “he had also descended into the lower regions (Latin Vulgate: inferiores partes) and Philippians 2:10, “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Latin Vulgate: infernorum).

Dwelling Places of the Dead

In order to understand the translation of these Bible verses, and of the Apostles’ Creed, it is necessary to recall the way in which the Ancients understood the afterlife. In the Old Testament, the place of the dead is known by the Hebrew word sheol. It is variously translated today as “Death,” “The Grave,” “The Pit,” and is normally spoken of without any interior moral divisions; it’s just the place everybody must go when they die. Jewish writing in the intertestamental period recognized (at least) two different regions of Sheol, and these divisions were picked up and expounded by Jesus in the Gospels. “Paradise” or “Abraham’s Bosom” is the place where the righteous go when they die, and “Sheol” became associated more with the place the wicked went (a connotation not present in most Old Testament uses of the word), which also began to be called “Gehenna” not long before the time of Jesus. 

This division was mirrored in Greco-Roman thought, the place where all the dead went was called “Hades,” a title which connoted neither bliss nor misery (the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint translated the Hebrew “Sheol” as “Hades”). It was understood to be under the earth, and hence it was also called the “lower places” or “beneath the earth.” Hades was understood to have (at least) two sub-regions: a place of bliss called “Elysium” for the blessed (corresponding to the Jewish “Paradise”), and a place of torment called “Tartarus” for the wicked (corresponding to the Jewish “Gehenna”).

In referencing the “infernum” (literally: “the lower places”), the Latin version of the Apostles’ Creed, in the biblical idiom, was communicating that Jesus merely went into Sheol/Hades, not that he went into the place of torment (Gehenna/Tartarus). In English, “hell” means “place of torment” and is the word reserved now to translate “Gehenna.” Therefore, “descended to Hades” would be a fine translation, but “Hades” is a foreign word to most English speakers, and so “descended to the dead” seems to be the most accurate translation.

The question now presents itself: why was “infernum” translated as “hell” in the first place, in the first English translation of the Apostles’ Creed for liturgical use in the BCP of 1552? The answer seems to be the insensitive way in which the variety of Hebrew and Greek words, which map onto different regions of the underworld, were all rendered into English simply as “hell.” The first truly English Bible, the “Wycliffe Bible,” has 122 instances of “hell” and it is the standard word to translate the Old Testament’s “Sheol.” The Great Bible of 1539 is somewhat less excessive in its translation with only 68 uses of “hell,” but this is still a far cry from precision, especially when we compare it with the ESV, which only has 17 uses of “hell,” since it only uses that word when the biblical text is speaking specifically of the place of suffering (i.e., “Gehenna,” not just “the lower places”). When the Apostles’ Creed was put into English, it was in the midst of a period of translation where such careful distinctions about the underworld were missing. This also explains the use of “hell” in Article 3 of the 39 Articles, which were finalized in 1571. However, in light of these now universally recognized distinctions (e.g., as evidenced in the RSV/ESV tradition), the old language of the creed (“…into hell”) seems especially out of date and would continue to be misleading to English speakers if it were perpetuated.

Where Do We End Up?

At this point, a distinction must be made between the translation of the Creed and the theology of where Christ went when he died. Thus far I have been explaining only the translation issues with the Creed. While the “mainstream” Patristic view was that Christ presented himself as the Messiah to the holy Jewish patriarchs in the “Paradise” region of Sheol, this is not the only view that has held water in the history of the Church. Indeed, the Reformers had a diverse array of opinions on the matter. The translation “descended to the dead” does not preclude any of the extant theological opinions (as opposed to dogma), among which is the opinion that Christ did in fact also go into the place of suffering (Gehenna/Tartarus/“hell”) when he died. He may have, but the Creed—rightly translated—doesn’t force that view. 

Putting it all together, what we see is that the “new” language for the creed which affirms that Christ “descended to the dead”, as well as being more accurate, allows for a specific range of theological opinions to be held while at the same time affirming the central truth: He definitely died, and his soul went to wherever the dead are. The Creedal “theology” therefore is a minimalist statement (he at least went to the Dead) that allows for maximal comprehensiveness—a very Anglican translation indeed.

Coda: For an excellent Anglican treatment of the various theological opinions and their merits vis-a-vis the biblical data, here is an excellent article by John Yates.