Depending on what type of church you grew up in, if any, you may or may not be used to saying “he descended into hell” right after “crucified, died, and was buried” in the Apostles’ Creed. I grew up reading that as a small italicized footnote in my Methodist hymnal, and in my first chapel service at RTS I was shocked to hear everyone say it– I was already barreling through “the third day he arose from the dead.”
In churches that recite that sentence as part of the creed, you have to answer the question of why you say it and what it means. It seems to imply that Jesus physically went into hell, the place of eternal torment for those outside Christ, between his death and resurrection. Some have understood this to be the case based largely on an initially confusing passage in 1 Peter:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared… (1 Pet 3:18-20)
Without going into too many details, most scholars now agree that this passage makes a comparison between the days of Peter’s readers and the days of Noah. Christ preached through his Spirit in Noah in the days of leading up to the flood, and similarly he now preaches as the day of God’s judgment approaches. So the “spirits in prison” are the spirits who are imprisoned at the time Peter is writing, those who refused to listen to Noah’s preaching. Therefore, almost everyone agrees that this passage does not teach a literal descent of Christ into hell. There are other passages that have been used to suggest such a descent, such as Eph 4:9-10 and 1 Pet 4:6, but they have more sensible interpretations as well.
So most people who retain “he descended into hell” in the Creed don’t intend for it to mean a literal descent of Christ into hell, but rather a statement that Christ continued under the power of death, the humiliation of death, for a time, and that he did this for us. This is true, of course, and it’s a truth that brings us great comfort. The Heidelberg Catechism sums it up this way:
Question 44. Why is there added, “he descended into hell”?
Answer: That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
So again, this is true. But does that mean we should recite this part of the Creed? I’ll give my answer in the next post.