When Lutherans recite the Creed, they are faced with an asterisk. We do not know how many other churches put footnotes in their service books, but ours has for a while now.
In the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal, asterisks stood in both the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, over the word "catholic." Many Lutherans were accustomed to saying "Christian" here, in imitation of a German rendering of the Creeds which, surprisingly, predated the Reformation. The SBH permitted this, but observed in a note that "catholic" was "the original and generally accepted" reading.
In a more ecumenical era, the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship let "catholic" stand sans notation, but added a new asterisk in the Apostles' Creed. Although the main text said that Jesus "descended into hell," a footnote offered the variant reading that "he descended to the dead."
So ... did the Lord go to Hell or didn't he? And why do Lutherans get so fussy about it?
Part of the answer to that second question is purely Lutheran. We accepted "Christian" because it was Christliche in the German version of the Book of Concord, and likewise some of us have argued that we should insist on "hell" because the BoC's German version of the Creed says Hoelle. This reflects a simple line of reasoning made popular during the confessional revival of the 19th century and perpetuated, in particular, by the LC-MS: locutus confessio, causa est.
But the Ecumenical Liturgical Language Consultation and others prefer "to the dead," which puts some pressure on Lutherans to at least consider that reading. And it is certainly not a bad reading. Some of our friends have gone so far as to propose that it is a superior rendering of the Biblical message, on the grounds that "the word 'hell' does not appear in the Bible." (Whether this is true or not is the question we shall consider in Part 2.)
The underlying Latin is ad inferos in most versions, ad inferna in the BoC. Both words have the root meaning of "down, below," and are used in pagan sources to describe both the regions inhabited by the dead and the shades of the dead themselves. Inferos has many more general uses, infernus (of which inferna seems to be the neuter accusative) is more likely to be used with reference to the dead, whence it it the obvious root, via Dante, of the English word "inferno."
(But please note that what infernus does not mean is a fire or a place where things are burning. Indeed, the OED doesn't even define infernal or inferno in terms of fire, but rather in terms of Hell and devils. Only in the case of "infernal machine," an old expression for a bomb, does fire even enter into the matter. Moreover, the OED definitions for words in this category all speak explicitly of Hell and devils.)
So it seems clear that the Apostles' Creed means to tell us that Jesus went down to the dead, or perhaps to the land of the dead. In this it echoes Ephesians 4:9, about going down to the lower regions of the earth, and perhaps 1 Peter 3:19, in which the Spirit sent the revivified Jesus to "preach to the souls that were in prison."
PART 2: So What is this "Hell" of Which You Speak?
Two questions follow logically here:
- Can the Latin terms inferos and infernus can legitimately be translated as Hell?
- Which translation better captures the Biblical sense of Christ's descent?
The answer to the first question seems to be a comparatively easy "yes." Although "hell" is a Germanic word and "inferno" a Latinate one, we have already seen that the OED can't even define the latter without reference to the former. The earliest translators of the Latin liturgy into English saw this as a perfectly natural correlation.
But there is one valid reason to hesitate. "Hell" is a richly evocative word in English. It conjures up images of fire and demons, of eternal torment, of God's absence and the Devil's presence. Its meaning, to our ears, is rather more than merely a holding pen for dead souls. Meanwhile, we are told in seminary that the Hebrew cosmology contains just such a holding pen -- Sheol, "the Pit" -- and a quick look at the Aeneid's depiction of the shades suggests that the Classical realm of Hades or Pluto was something similar. Does the word "Hell" overstate the case, and insert into the Biblical narrative a cosmological proposition which belongs rather to the realms of Northern Europe?
Maybe. But maybe not.
Is "hell" in the Bible? Yes, about 65 times in the KJV (including Apocrypha). The NRSV uses it as well, although more sparingly and only in the New Testament. The NRSV eschews hell as a translation of Sheol in the OT (which it simply calls "the Pit") or Hades in the NT (where "Hades" translates Ps. 16:10's Sheol, or in Revelation where it is paired symbolically with Death). In the NRSV, the word "hell" is restricted to translations of Gehenna (in the Gospels), and Tartaros (in 2 Peter 2:4).
So there is a certain syncretism as work in the Bible itself, as locations in Hebrew cosmology are paired with locations in Greek cosmology. It may help to review the terms.
Hades, as everyone knows, was both the Greek god of the dead and his domain. Homer places it at the western end of the earth, and peoples it with dull and listless shades of the dead. In later literature, it becomes a more complicated and diverse locale. For what it's worth, the LXX uses "Hades" quite freely as a translation of "Sheol."
Tartaros, in Homer and the archaic poets, is a distinct place -- a massive pit located below (but distinct from) Hades itself. In later poetry, as well as Plato and Aristophanes, the two merged, along with a variety of other places, so that the Greek afterlife developed a busy topography. Some of the shades were in Tartaros for punishment, some in Elysium or the White Islands for blessing. Those who had just arrived were in Erebus, and the great majority in the Fields of Asphodel. All of this was, at least by the end, said to be contained in Hades.
Gehenna, of course, was an actual place where human sacrifices (by fire) were performed, and which was so condemned by Jewish tradition that in the intertestamental period it became a byword for punishment after death. The implication of the NRSV's translation strategy is to argue that, by the time of Jesus, Hellenistic Jewish cosmology thought of the Sheol / Hades as the domain of the dead in general, and of Gehenna / Tartaros as a distinct location reserved for punishment of the wicked. Hence the first pair of words are "the pit" or simply "death," and the second properly "hell."
We're not entirely convinced of this.
First and most obviously, the New Testament is concerned, from beginning to end, with God's announced intention to open up to human beings the "Kingdom of the Heavens." While there is much textual support for the idea that Christians enter this kingdom through baptism and faith, meaning that we live in it here and now, there is also support for the idea that we continue to inhabit it, or even do so more fully, after our death. In other words, the New Testament sets forth a bifurcated afterlife, one part of which is located, or at least named for, God's traditional home in many cultures: the sky.
This does not by itself bifurcate the land of the dead, for the important reason that Christians who have "died" in this world are understood to still be alive. The popular imagination might say that the "good dead people are in Heaven and the bad dead people are in Hell," but a more strenuous reading of the New Testament says that "the saved live in the kingdom of the skies, while the un-saved are dead in the pit below."
This is a fair reading, but creates a problem for our discussion: it demands that Hell exist, and opens the door to Limbo. A simple bifurcation means that to "the heavens" is opposed everything else. Elysium is gone, because there are no more blessed dead; those blessed by the grace of God now live forever. But Sheol/Hades and Gehanna/Tartaros are all basically neighborhoods in the same city, the common home of all those who can truly be called dead.
This logic requires us to imagine that the land of the dead contains a distinct section in which the wicked are punished. Yet since this is not the whole of the land, we are compelled to imagine that Sheol/Hades also contains many people who are not being punished, but who have not received eternal life, either.
And indeed, Christianity has experimented with various permutations of this idea, most famously the idea that unbaptized infants and the heroes of the Old Testament have been deprived of eternal life, but are nonetheless rewarded with a pleasant afterlife in areas on "the edge" (limbus) of Hell. Limbo is out of fashion these days, though. Protestants generally incline to a broader view of salvation, while Roman Catholics have gradually recast their philosophical positions in non-topological language, meaning that they are disinclined to speak of Limbo as a place.
In any case, it seems clear that the Biblical testimony recognizes two fates for human souls: eternal life and eternal death. And, using both Hebrew and Greek imagery, it assigns the living to one place, and the dead to another.
PART 3: So Whaddaya Call It?
If it makes Biblical sense to speak first of an afterlife divided between life and death, and second of death divided into mere death and active punishment, it finally falls upon pastors and theologians to think about how to speak of these things. What names do we give them?
In a technical discussion of the Biblical texts, it is wisest to leave the proper names untranslated. Let us simply say, and write, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and (in one single instance) Tartaros. This will give our conversation the greatest degree of clarity.
Unfortunately, this strategy will also confuse anybody lacking at least a basic grasp of Classical literature -- meaning not only most laypeople, but much of the modern clergy. If we want to communicate quickly and easily about these things, we need to use familiar words.
That is where "Hell" comes in. It is a good English word, defined by the OED as "the abode of the dead, the place of departed spirits." This is fair enough, as a catchall term for the condition of the dead in general. Etymologically, the OED relates "Hell" to a variety of other words in Germanic languages, with the root sense of "to cover up or hide," as things are hidden in a pit.
Among those related words, although other sources suggest the connection may be uncertain, is "the proper name of the goddess of the infernal regions, 'the ogress Hel, the Proserpine of Scandinavian mythology.' " Like Hades and Pluto, Hel also gave her name to her domain. it is a dark, misty land, sometimes identifiable with Niflheim, populated by quite a variety of supernatural creatures -- hel-maidens, dragons, Scandihoovian zombies called Uppvakningar. Obviously, using the name of a pagan goddess and her realm to identify a Christian theological concept raises some difficulties; but we can plead that St. John the Revelator has given us his own good example, since he did not hesitate to do likewise. Nor did the translators of the Septuagint.
The chief danger, and no doubt the reluctance of some translators, comes from the fact that the word "Hell" now evokes a range of images in the popular imagination, many of them foreign to the Biblical imagination. Yes, 2 Peter puts the fallen angels there; and yes, Jesus preached to the souls in prison there. And there are definitely references in Matthew and Mark to fire. But the great medieval apparatus of Hell -- the demons with their pitchforks and devious tortures -- are not to be found in the Bible, at least outside the fable of Lazarus and Dives. Those tortures are, in fact, part of the Classical inheritance, extrapolated from the fates of Sisyphus, Tantalus and Ixion.
Perversely enough, then, it is possible that the syncretistic elements in the popular vision of Hell are actually implicit in the Greek vocabulary of the LXX and 2 Peter - implicit, indeed, in the very choice of Greek as a vehicle for Christian revelation. To avoid them, we would need to make up new words, which would simply lead to more confusion.
On balance, we do not see that there is much to be gained by avoiding the word "Hell" when talking about the state of souls after death. The word has been used this way in English as long as English has existed, and largely to the exclusion of anything else. It does indeed carry some connotations which are extrinsic to the Christian account of eternity, but so do the alternatives.
Now, as to that "Heaven" people always talk about ....