One of our New Saint Thomas Institute students named Jana from Slovakia had a question about the translation of “descended into Hell” from the Apostles’ Creed:
I am from from Slovakia and in our language we do not use the word “hell” in the Creed, rather we use “he descended to those who died / departed”. We use “hell” only in the meaning of gehenna. Therefore I was a bit confused at first when I saw the title of this lesson: “he descended into hell” – I immediately associated hell with gehenna, but now I understand that hell is more like a collective term.
Jana, it’s so great to have members from Slovakia!
In English, we usually recite the Apostles’ Creed with the translation “He descended into hell.” To get to the bottom of this, let’s look at both the Greek and Latin versions of the Apostles’ Creed.
The Greek version of the Apostles’ Creed reads κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, (“katelthonta eis ta katôtata“) meaning “descended to lower ones,” or you could translate it as “descended to those below.”
The Latin version reads “descendit ad inferos,” where “inferos” (not infernos with an “n”) means “those below” like the word “inferior.” So the Latin “inferos” corresponds pretty accurately with the Greek κατώτατα.
There are, however, early textual variants for this line in the Apostles’ Creed:
- ad inferos “to those below” (in current usage, standardized by Trent, in use in Vatican documents)
- ad infernos “to those below” (rare and later usage – but often reprinted in Catholic literature)
- ad inferna (neuter accusative plural) “to the underworlds” (from Rufinus, circa AD 390 & Gallican Sacramentary circa AD 650)
- ad infernum (accustive singular) “to the underworld” (from Poitiers, France circa AD 600)
The Latin versions that I see read both “inferos” or “infernos” in Catholic texts. The Council of Trent and the the Vatican’s edition of the Catechism has it printed as “inferos” so that’s the official version. It’s worth noting that the Latin version of the Athanasian Creed also reads “inferos” or “those below.”
To be grammatically accurate, the Apostles’ Creed is stating that Christ is descending to persons “inferos” and not to a place “infernum,” though Scripture and Tradition identify the Old Testament righteous souls as waiting in Limbo or “Abraham’s Bosom.”
If you want to see how Saint Thomas Aquinas divides the underworld or “hell” into four sections, please watch this video on the “Four Sections of Hell“:
If you’d like to take online classes like this in Philosophy, Theology, Apologetics, and Church History and Historical Theology, sign up at the New Saint Thomas Institute:
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Dr. Taylor Marshall