I got a GREAT question late last night that I couldn't wait to tackle. It was a big, juicy one that I just had to share right away. This was from a really sharp teen who is clearly paying attention.
Why does the Apostle’s Creed say that Jesus descended into hell?
Firstly, if you don't know what the Apostle's Creed is or you don't know it very well, you can read it in Latin or English here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostles'_Creed. The short story is that it's a major creed for most denominations and many churches recite it together on a weekly basis. It covers the very basic beliefs of the Christian church and provides a bit of a record of the church's faith journey throughout the centuries.
This question of Jesus' descent into hell has been a relatively (at least as far as these things go) hotly contended issue for centuries. This article here gives a concise and interesting history on the debate: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/nov15.html. Many people advocate the removal of this line from the Apostle’s Creed. I disagree. I think there is an important concept to be communicated here, but language changes and I’m not sure it carries the same apparent meaning today as perhaps it might if amended. We often don’t do a good job of teaching our creeds and their meanings in the church or of translating them into modern language.
This is a tricky question and much of it revolves partly around the definition of “hell” that you’re working off of. Some theological traditions literally show Jesus in hell suffering for the three days until Easter. The reformed tradition tends to shy away from the very literal interpretation of this. In our tradition, we tend to see hell not as a physical place, but as separation from God - annihilation – being erased from existence. If this is how we see hell, it changes what we’re saying from Jesus being put physically in a place of fire and brimstone to Jesus experiencing complete nothing on our behalf. Our minds start to get a little squirrely when we think about things like God the Son being separated from God the Father even though they are one and inseparable, but that’s the paradox of Jesus’ sacrifice.
The word used for hell in the bible is a weird and mysterious word and generally means the grave or the place where the dead sleep, but it is not necessarily a special place of torture for those who have been damned. Generally when we talk about Jesus going to hell in the reformed tradition, we’re looking at the interpretation of the word “hell” to be “grave.” Jesus did die. Jesus did go to the grave and experience separation and nothingness. All on our behalf. That is an important part of our faith.
The scripture passage that is often looked to for reference in this discussion is 1 Peter 3:17-20. “18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,d he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits” The passage doesn’t explicitly say that Jesus went to hell. While some interpret it that way, others tend to take it to mean the Jesus saves even those who died historically before Jesus did or that Jesus the Word of God spoke to those who died before he came historically to earth. Things get weird and wonderful in theology when you start to talk about time and space and this is one of those timey wimey places that gets a little mind-blowing.
When we recite together the Apostle’s Creed, which is an important record of the faith journey of the church, we are acknowledging that dying on the cross wasn’t all that Jesus did for us. Jesus came to earth in the first place. Jesus died on the cross. Jesus spent 3 days in the grave – in the grips of death – and then rose again.
Additional articles that are helpful for exploring this question:
So there you have it. . . clear as mud.