The Apostles Creed was one of the first creeds of the early Church; it is still confessed by millions of churches around the world today. This is what the creed says:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic* church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
This creed is great because it is full of universal truths of the Christian faith that all Christians have agreed on down through the ages. I should say it is full of these universal truths that all agree upon, except one, “He descended into hell.” Most Christians confessing this creed stop at this part and think, “What does that even mean?” So, we have a question on our hands don’t we? Did Jesus descend into hell after the crucifixion? If so, where does the Bible say that? If not, where does the Bible say that, and where did Jesus go after He died? These are good questions.
Does the Bible say Jesus descended into hell after dying on the cross? Some people have used 1 Peter 3:18-20 to say yes. Peter says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.” Those who use this claim that this verse clearly teaches a descent into hell to preach to the spirits in prison (hell). Is this a good reading? No. The REST of the verse says that the context of Jesus’ preaching to these spirits was in the days of Noah. So how did Jesus descend into hell after the cross, in the days of Noah? It doesn’t make sense. The most satisfactory explanation of 1 Peter 3:19-20 was put forth by Augustine. He said that the “passage refers not to something Christ did between His death and resurrection, but to what He did in the spiritual realm of existence, through the Spirit, at the time of Noah. ‘Christ preached to the spirits in prison’ means Christ preached to people who are now spirits in prison when they were still persons on earth.” (Grudem’s Systematic Theology, 591) So can we use this verse to claim Jesus descended into hell? No, we cannot. Does the Bible allude to or say anywhere else that Jesus went into hell? No, it does not. So did Jesus descend into hell? No.
1 Peter is clear, but does the Bible say Jesus did not descend into hell? I think it does. Wayne Grudem offers the following evidence to say so.
First, Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) This implies that Jesus’ spirit went immediately to paradise, or heaven, upon death. If He went to hell, He could not have said this to the thief.
Second, Jesus said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) on the cross. This implies that Jesus’s suffering was over and the payment for sin was complete and done for all time, past, present, and future. Therefore if the suffering is over and finished, there is no need to go to hell for further punishment. Again, I think this shows that Jesus went straight to the Father’s side upon death.
Third, Jesus said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Luke 23:46) This implies that Jesus’ spirit was in the hands of the Father directly after death; not in hell. Just as Jesus’ body remained on earth while His spirit went straight to the Father upon His death, so too our bodies will remain here on earth while our spirits go straight to the Father upon our deaths. I agree with Wayne Grudem when he says, “This is much greater comfort regarding death than could ever be given by any view of a descent into hell.” (page 594)
To me, it’s clear that Jesus did not descend into hell for the above reasons; so were left with the question, why is this phrase kept in the Apostles Creed? Yes we should, not simply because it’s been in the creed for hundreds of years and therefore should remain. An error is still an error no matter how old it is. But, I still think we should retain the creed’s integrity by retaining the phrase within it. Why? Because on the cross, when Jesus absorbed the wrath of God in behalf of the people of God, He truly and horrifically experienced hell.
On the cross Jesus descended into hell, for us. Because of this, we receive pardon – full, final, forever – praise Him!