Holy Saturday is the one day, and the last in the Easter Triduum, that is least understood by Protestants. Growing up in a non-liturgical background I paid some attention to Good Friday, and a lot more to Easter Sunday, but Saturday seemed like a big hole in the whole week, a hole that was left unfilled until Sunday morning. That is no longer the case for me once I began to understand and study the occasion of Holy Saturday about ten years ago.
Holy Saturday commemorates Jesus’ burial, which of course is specifically mentioned in the creed as a part of the mystery of our salvation. This is also the day where the phrase “he descended into hell” is mentioned. The only liturgical service in Catholicism is the liturgy of the hours, though from the fifth century on daytime masses have been held. The Easter Vigil, as this day developed over time, became the evening service which prepared the church for the Resurrection day, the celebration of Easter.
The church has commonly remembered these three days in association with the Passover. The reason for this should be obvious. The events themselves took place during Passover and Passover themes entered into Christian interpretation very early in the church. The New Testament itself speaks of Jesus as the Paschal lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7 (cf. John 1:29; 19:36). Jesus is sacrificed as the lamb of God for the sins of the world. This is why Passover readings will often be heard on this day in the evening service.
But what about the phrase “he descended into hell” in the creed? D. Bruce Lockerbie, an evangelical scholar, writes in his book The Apostles Creed: Do You Really Believe It? (1977):
The . . . clause . . . "He descended into hell," is the most controversial in the Apostle's Creed. Indeed, some denominations consider it optional or refuse to include it at all. The problem with this phrase begins with what it connotes. To some, the descent into hell represents the physical agony of death upon the Cross. It was hellish in its pain. To others, the word hell means Hades or Sheol, the collective abode of the dead, divided into Paradise or Abraham's Bosom—the state of God-fearing souls—and Gehenna, the state of ungodly souls. Thus the descent into hell may suggest that the Son of God carried the sins of the world to hell; or the Son of God carried Good News of deliverance to the godly dead such as Lazarus the beggar and the repentant thief. A third-century Syrian Creed speaks of Jesus, "who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and departed in peace, in order to preach to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints concerning the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead."
Still others believe that the descent into hell account for the problem of God's justice by providing an opportunity for all mankind–in eternity as well as in time–to hear the message of redemption from the Word Himself. But whatever interpretation one accepts, the scriptural passages upon which this teaching is based must be studied closely. Some of the standard texts are Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6.
I agree with Lockerbie’s overall summary of the different ways this phrase can be understood. I actually take the same view of this ancient phrase that the great Reformer John Calvin did when he concluded that Christ’s descent into hell consisted of his redemptive agony on the cross. This view has been debated and defended and I commend it to you as worthy of faith and as the correct meaning of the creed itself. If you do an online search of the phrase “descended into hell (creed)” you will find a myriad of helpful articles and a load of academic background and debate. I have concluded that it is right to not only say this in the creed but also to understand it as very important. It is right, then, to directly associate this statement with Holy Saturday itself.
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The Church Fathers are unanimous that this is referring to Christ’s descent into the underworld, to the souls in Abraham’s bosom. St. Ignatius of Antioch says this in AD 107, St. Irenaeus does as well, as does St. Martyr, Tertullian and St. Hippolytus. All these are very early witnesses. St. Augustine says, “Who other than an unbeliever can deny that Christ was in the underworld?” And St. Thomas Aquinas teaches this as well. (ST III Q.52 a.5) Moreover, the very order of the wording of the Apostles Creed indicates that His descent into hell follows his death and burial, because it says “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again; He ascended into heaven.” The Church didn’t put these words together in a random order, but very intentionally and deliberately. Calvin’s opinion would imply that “descended into hell” should have been placed between the words “crucified” and “died.”
Calvin departed from the unanimous tradition of the Church on this point, to make it fit his theology. And if “descended into hell” had the meaning Calvin says, it would have nothing to do with Holy Saturday, because Christ’s suffering on the cross ended on Good Friday.
In the peace of Christ,
I have to agree with Bryon on this one.
I do not however have to agree with that part if the creed, and therefore don’t.
If the Apostles’ Creed is an accurate reflection of the apostolic tradition (and I haven’t heard much evidence to the contrary) and if the apostles really did have special authority to teach and to write Scripture (and most of us seem to think that they did) then doesn’t it make sense for us to confess this creed even if we don’t fully understand it? The whole Creed is built on the Trinity which is already a great mystery, and we all confess that without deeply understanding it. With all due respect to John Calvin, I would trust the church fathers who were closer to the apostles a little bit more on this one to explain what it means. We can all point to Bible verses that we don’t really understand and confess that we believe them anyway because the Scriptures are authoritative. The Creed is not on par with Scripture, but it might be the next best thing, and it deserves to be treated deferentially. When churches, denominations and individuals decide to remove portions of the Creed, they are making a a bold statement about their own authority which I find unsettling.
Your comments are compelling enough to force me to go back and do more reading and research and remain open to changing my mind. While I do not think the Fathers views are always right, and thus they do not form a coherent and singular infallible witness to the truth, when they are relatively uniform that makes me stop and say: “Why?” Most every time they are right if there is so much consistency. I appreciate your pointing this out in a most excellent way.
I will study this to see if the uniformity you testify to is there and if there is solid reason to accept it. I am not opposed, simply willing to be taught a better way by better teachers, namely the Church Fathers.