This article states that

In the context of the Apostles’ Creed, hell does not mean what we understand by the word today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point as follows: “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell”—Sheol-- in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer (no. 633).

If this is correct, this leads to the question: why is the word 'hell' used if it's not what is meant by 'hell' today? Why, instead, don't English-speaking Catholics say 'Hades' or 'Sheol' to make the meaning of the Apostles' Creed more clear?

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    It might interest you that the Newer English translations (later than 1970) now reads "He descended to the dead" which implies Hades/Sheol. It's interesting why the new 2008 Roman Rite doesn't use the new translation. Mar 1, 2021 at 21:56
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    I don't think the words "Hades" or "Sheol" are any clearer to the average reader, personally. Looking up the definition of Hades in a dictionary comes up with "the Greek god of the underworld," and Sheol isn't even listed. Mar 2, 2021 at 4:56
  • @SamuelBradshaw Good point - but not knowing what to make of a term is probably better than being misled by it, IMO. I think the "He descended to the dead." is perhaps the clearest of these 4 options. Mar 2, 2021 at 5:02

2 Answers 2


Why do English-speaking Catholics say “descended into hell” instead of “descended into Hades” or “into Sheol“?

It is simply a matter of a bad translation from the Latin word for inferus.

The original Latin goes as such: ”descendit ad inferos” in the Apostles’ Creed.

Inferus has normally been translated as the lower regions or the netherworld.



From Proto-Italic *enðeros, from Proto-Indo-European *h₁n̥dʰér-o-s, from *h₁n̥dʰér. Cognate with English under, Sanskrit अधर (ádhara). *ð>f is irregular in word-internal position and is either explained as (Faliscan) dialectal influence or by assuming metanalysis as a compound with in.


īnferus (feminine īnfera, neuter īnferum, comparative īnferior, superlative īnfimus or īmus); first/second-declension adjective

  1. low

  2. (in the masculine plural) the souls of the dead

  3. (in the neuter plural) the netherworld, the underworld, Hell


  • inferus in Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short (1879) A Latin Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press

  • inferus in Charlton T. Lewis (1891) An Elementary Latin Dictionary, New York: Harper & Brothers

  • inferus in Gaffiot, Félix (1934) Dictionnaire illustré Latin-Français, Hachette

  • Carl Meissner; Henry William Auden (1894) Latin Phrase-Book‎1, London: Macmillan and Co.

    • (ambiguous) the gods of the upper, lower world: super; inferi

    • (ambiguous) the world below: inferi (Orcus and Tartarus only poetical)

    • (ambiguous) to descend to the world below: ad inferos descendere

    • (ambiguous) to be in the lower world: apud inferos ease

The fact is the phrase just up to very recently employed the word dead for the Latin word inferus. This is a practice I still follow as I believe it is more faithful to the Latin translation.

Roman Catholic Church

The initial (1970) English official translation of the Roman Missal of the Roman Catholic Church adopted the ICET version, as did catechetical texts such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

In 2008 the Catholic Church published a new English translation of the texts of the Mass of the Roman Rite, use of which came into force at the end of 2011. It included the following translation of the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Apostles' Creed (Wikipedia)

A new translation of the Mass of the Ordinary Form was inaugurated on the First Sunday of Advent in 2011. Surprisingly enough the Apostles’ Creed was overlooked!

The New Mass: Continuities and Changes The changes (and their continuities with the older form of the Mass) are obvious from the first time the priest says, "The Lord be with you." In place of the familiar "And also with you," the congregation responds, "And with your spirit"—a literal translation of the Latin "Et cum spiritu tuo," found in both forms of the Mass. The Confiteor (the penitential rite), the Gloria ("Glory to God in the highest"), the Nicene Creed, and the dialogue between the priest and the congregation after the Agnus Dei ("The Lamb of God") and immediately before Communion all hark back to the older form of Mass—as well they should, because both forms of the Mass share the same Latin text for these parts.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that the new translation significantly alters the Novus Ordo. The changes put in place by Pope Paul VI in 1969 remain, as do all of the major differences between the Traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo. All the new translation does is to tighten up some very loose translations of the Latin text, restore a certain dignity to the English text of the Mass, and reinstate a few lines at various points in the Mass that had simply been dropped in the earlier translation from Latin to English. - The New Translation of the Catholic Mass

We may yet need a fourth revision of its’ texts!

  • So I guess the question is why did the Catholic Church in 2008 switch to a (worse) translation of that line? Mar 1, 2021 at 22:16
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    @AnthonyBurg Not saying that modern liturgists are the best. But they are just that they are modern and this new translation is the new mode many times. It is another post conciliatory viewpoint.
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 1, 2021 at 23:31
  • @KenGraham What I wondered is why in 2008 the Catholic Church didn't use the opportunity to update the language to "He descended to the dead" like other denominations, as described in the wikipedia? Mar 2, 2021 at 2:27
  • @GratefulDisciple My guess is that modern liturgists are in charge of translations and recommendations. Some national bishops’ conferences have a complaint department official, but not all.
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 2, 2021 at 4:47
  • It's odd, because in every other case I've seen the new translation was more accurate. Perhaps the bishops are trying to change the common understanding of "hell" to reflect the actual theology.
    – OrangeDog
    Mar 2, 2021 at 11:33

Probably because of the Book of Common Prayer.

Outside the Catholic Church the Anglican church dominated English speaking Christianity, and for three hundred years the Book of Common Prayer was the single source of liturgy for the church. It's cultural significance was such that even those who were not part of the Church of England (and most people were at least nominally a part) would be familiar with the language, in the same way that phrases from the King James version of the Bible passed into common use. The prayers would be read in schools for hundreds of years.

The Book of Common Prayer included "He descended into Hell" as part of the creeds, up until the modernization of CofE liturgy in the second half of the 20th century. The translation is a poor one today, for the reasons given elsewhere.

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