The phrase “descended into hell” from the Apostles Creed has been controversial at times in church history. Not even the Reformers agreed amongst themselves what it meant. Should we keep this phrase in the Creed -- especially since not every early version of the Creed included it? What did the framers of the Creed mean by it? What should we mean by it when we recite it? What Scriptures speak to the issue?

This is one of those places where I would actually side with Martin Luther over John Calvin  (and the Heidelberg Catechism, which followed Calvin’s interpretation). Calvin took the phrase as an explanation of what happened when Jesus died on the cross — he suffered hell for us. This is certainly a way of describing what happened on the cross (the big theological term for this is “propitiation”). This is the essence of substitutionary atonement, which is certainly a biblical teaching: on the cross Jesus suffered what the punishment due to us because of our sin, namely, wrath and hell. There is no doubt Jesus suffered for our sins on the cross, taking the punishment we deserve, and that could certainly be described as “hell.” He bore the wrath we should have suffered, compressing eternal torment into three hours of infinite agony, summarized in the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

While that interpretation grasps a crucial biblical doctrine, the problem is that there is no way that is what the phrase actually means in the Creed. The Creed has already made reference to his suffering on his cross (“suffered under Pontius Pilate”). To refer to it again by the phrase “he descended into hell” would be redundant and out of order. The wording of this phrase in the Creed actually comes from another biblical text, namely Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:27, 31, where he is quoting from Psalm 16 — God would not abandon his Holy One, Jesus, to Hades. This text is the key to unlocking the meaning of this phrase in the Creed. I like the ESV translation in Acts 2 because it leaves “Hades” as “Hades,” whereas other translations say “grave” or “realm of the dead.” Hades is the Greek term for the Hebrew "sheol," and it is simply the realm of the dead, the underworld, the place where departed spirits would go in the old creation. Before Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the souls of everyone who died, the faithful and the wicked, went to Sheol/Hades. Hades seemed to have two compartments, a place known as Abraham’s Bosom (see Luke 16), or Paradise, for the faithful, and a place where the wicked began to suffer torment. In the Creed, the descent into Hades is part of a sequence Jesus goes through: crucified, dead, buried, descended, rose again, ascended, sits, will come again. So this phrase in the Creed indicates that Jesus really died and remained under death for a time. The phrase is supposed to tell us where Jesus was between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Luther said this was Christ's “harrowing of Hell.” He entered into the underworld, not to suffer because his suffering for our sins was over when he cried out “It is finished," but to proclaim his victory over Satan on Satan’s own turf, humiliating him and triumphing over him (see Colossians 2:15). Of course, Jesus also went to the paradise side of Sheol/Hades, as he told the thief who was on the cross next to him and who repented (Luke 23:43). I think this is the best interpretation.

Now, in the new covenant, when believers die, we do not go down to Hades at all. Our souls go up to heaven, to be with Jesus and the other saints. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he took the souls of the righteous from the Abraham’s Bosom side of Hades up to heaven to be with him (see Ephesians 4:8-10) — these would be the righteous who lived and died before Jesus came into the world. Both Hebrews and Revelation describe heaven as now being opened to believers (see also countless hymns, including "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:" "O come, O Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home..."). Paul makes clear that when we die we go to be with the Lord in heaven above (2 Cor. 5:1ff; Phil. 1:21ff), in the so-called intermediate state. In heaven, we await the resurrection of the body and the final New Heavens and Earth. The wicked still go down to Hades when they die. At the last day, they will be cast, body and soul, into the lake of fire forever.

Sometimes 1 Peter 3:18-20 is imported into discussions of this phrase in the Creed. While this is a hard passage, it does not fit into this discussion. 1 Peter 3:18-20 is talking about Jesus’ Spirit preaching through Noah to people who lived before the flood, and who are now suffering because they did not repent when they heard the message of the gospel.