There is a spectrum of views around the phrase “He descended into hell” in the Apostle’s Creed. This is made even more confusing because this clause was probably the last to be solidified. Some argue that Jesus literally went to hell using the scriptural support detailed below. Here are my thoughts on these verses very briefly:
Did Jesus Literally Descend into Hell?
“For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” Acts 2:27
Peter is preaching at Pentecost and quotes the words of King David in Psalm 16:10. The Greek word Hades is used for hell in this verse and likely in the very first forms of the Creed. Hades is similar to the Hebrew word Sheol. Both of these words mean the figurative “place of the dead.” Not necessarily hell, where there is eternal punishment. The Greek word in the New Testament that describes what we today call hell is Gehenna. (See also Acts 2:31)
“But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)” Romans 10:6-7
The context of this verse doesn’t address Jesus’ descent into hell. Instead, Paul is saying that true faith in Jesus doesn’t need to reach high (into heaven) or low (into the abyss) to get to Him. Instead, per verse 8, He is very near, and one needs only to “confess with your mouth” and “believe in your heart.” (v. 9)
“Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” Ephesians 4:8-9
The context of this verse is most likely the incarnation, Jesus’ descent from the glory of heaven into Creation as a human. Hence, most translations qualify “lower regions” as specifying the earth.
“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, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.” 1 Peter 3:19-20
This is the passage most turn to immediately, but there is quite a bit of context and grammar that plays a part in an accurate interpretation. Without devoting pages of detailed exegesis, I’ll simply quote the theologian Wayne Grudem and encourage you to read his entire academic article yourself. “The verse does not refer to something Christ did between his death and resurrection, but something he did ‘in the spiritual realm of existence’ (or ‘through the Spirit’) at the time of Noah. When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in spirit’ was preaching through Noah to the hostile unbelievers around him.”*1
(Theologian David Scaer wrote a response to Wayne Grudem which I encourage anybody interested in this subject to read as well, in order to study balancing opinions.*2)
“For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” 1 Peter 4:6
Some translations use the phrase “those who are now dead” to signify that the Greek shows the Gospel was preached to past generations. Read in light of 1 Peter 4:5, judgment is in Peter’s mind. The Gospel, to the degree it was revealed to previous generations of Christians, was preached so that they would embrace it and avoid judgment. This verse neither supports Jesus’s descent into hell nor that He preached to the dead. In fact, Jesus isn’t mentioned, only the Gospel. And it does not support a “second chance” for salvation after death.
Should “He Descended into Hell” be Cut from the Apostles Creed Entirely?
In light of what’s above, some argue that “He descended into hell” should be cut entirely. Some even refuse to say that phrase or they delete it from the Creed. I agree with much of David Scaer’s argument that advocates for keeping the Apostle’s Creed (and others) in their inherited form without editing. Ultimately, I think that the most likely meaning of “He descended into hell” lies somewhere in between these two positions.
I believe that the previous sentence in the Apostle’s Creed (about Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, death and burial) explains what was seen, what Christ’s humanity endured for us as He stood in our place. The sentence we’re looking at now explains what Christ’s divinity endured for us as He took our spiritual punishment. The Apostle’s Creed tells us first of Christ’s physical death, then His spiritual death. That’s why I don’t think these words should be deleted, nor do I believe that Jesus physically went to hell after His crucifixion.
This is, of course, my opinion. Much smarter men and women than me have opinions that don’t agree with mine. This doctrine is not worth fighting over because it’s secondary in nature.
Christians can amicably disagree on this point (and many others) and still be united as Jesus’ “capital C” Church!
1Grudem, Wayne. “He Did Not Descend Into Hell; A Plea For Following Scripture Instead of the Apostle’s Creed.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34, no. 1 (March 1991): 110. (http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/he-did-not-descend-into-hell_JETS.pdf)
2Scaer, David P. “He Did Descend To Hell: In Defense of the Apostle’s Creed.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35, no. 1 (March 1992): 91-99. (https://www.intoxicatedonlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/David-Scaer.pdf)