QUESTION: What is meant in The Apostles' Creed by saying that Jesus "descended into hell"?
ANSWER: First, what is referred to as The Apostles' Creed was not written by the apostles themselves. Rather, about three centuries after their time, the creed was created to summarize some of the important things the apostles taught. On the whole, it does that quite well.
However, there is one clause in the creed which especially has raised questions. You will, in fact, see some versions of the creed that omit it, to avoid controversy. In my view it is fitting--though I understand not all will agree with my position.
The Apostles' Creed, as quoted in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, between its reference to the death and resurrection of Christ makes this statement: "He [speaking of Christ] descended into hell." The question is, did the Lord Jesus actually go to hell, the lake of fire, the place of eternal punishment? And, if so, why?
In answer, the word "hell" in that context is likely based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word sheol, which actually refers, not to the lake of fire, but to the abode of all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, before the time of Christ's death.
We see it, for example, in the King James Version of Psalm 16:10. David says, "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [sheol]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption." David wasn't afraid he'd be going to hell. He was simply expressing his confidence that he wouldn't remain forever in the grave, when he died. That he was going to be resurrected one day.
Many modern Bible versions, such as the New King James, simply use the Hebrew word there. Rather than saying "in hell," they say, "in Sheol." The NIV has "You will not abandon me to the grave."
New Testament writers realized that, though David was speaking in part of himself, his words also applied prophetically to the resurrection of Christ. Peter quotes Psalm 16:10 on the Day of Pentecost, applying it to Him. "David says concerning Him [Christ]...You will not leave my soul in Hades [pronounced HAY-deez, the Greek equivalent of Sheol], nor will You suffer Your Holy One to see corruption" (Acts 2:25, 27). Paul also quotes the verse with reference to Jesus (Acts 13:35-37).
Actually, no human being has yet gone to hell (the lake of fire), so there would be no point in Christ descending there. The lake of fire was originally prepared by God as a place of eternal punishment for the devil and his demon host (Matt. 25:41). It only comes into the picture as a place where unsaved human beings are sent at the time of future judgment (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14-15).
In Luke 16:19-31, the Lord Jesus tells of the deaths of a rich man who had no time for God, and of a beggar named Lazarus, who was a believer. Some think this is a parable (a made-up story), but I do not. Jesus actually quotes Abraham speaking (vs. 25). In no parable are there found real, historical Bible characters, let alone their actual words. To invent make believe words for Abraham would make Christ a deceiver, which He is definitely not!
No, what we are seeing in the passage is Sheol (or Hades), the place of the departed dead, before Christ's sacrifice on the cross. There was a temporary place of blessing there, which Jesus calls "Abraham's bosom" (vs. 22), a place of comfort, and fellowship with the faithful, like Abraham. ("The angels carried him to Abraham's side," NIV.)
In contrast, the Lord describes a temporary place of torment for the unsaved (vs. 23). And between the two regions there was "a great gulf fixed" (vs. 26), a great chasm or divide separating the two. No one was able to cross from one to the other. Both compartments, however, were part of Hades.
Today, the unsaved are apparently still there, in Hades, awaiting final judgment. The book of Revelation states that, at the end, "Death and Hades [will be] cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death" (Rev. 20:13-14). Death and Hades being cast into hell means, I believe, that there will be an end to any temporary place of punishment. Hell is forever. The second death refers to the eternal separation of the unsaved from God, and from the place of heavenly blessing (cf. Rev. 22:11).
All through the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were offered. When they were offered in faith, God accepted them, and forgave the sinner. However, it was only a temporary solution, a symbol pointing forward to the coming reality on the cross. "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). That is why Jesus had to die on the cross. He is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn. 1:29; cf. Eph. 1:7).
What, then, can it mean if Christ visited Sheol (or Hades), the place of the dead, after His death? Here is what I think–and what those who fashioned the Apostles' Creed seem to have believed.
That the Lord Jesus, between His death and resurrection, visited Sheol in order to assure the believing dead that the final debt of sin had been paid. Though there is disagreement about the interpretation of Ephesians 4:8-10, some believe it is a possible reference to the Lord Jesus visiting believers in Sheol, announcing that their sins where paid for, and escorting triumphantly them to heaven.
If that is so, what a thrill it must have been for the Old Testament saints to learn of that wonderful truth, and see their Saviour! Now, at death, all who are saved go directly to heaven, where they are "present with the Lord" (II Cor. 5:8; cf. Phi. 1:23).