At King’s Cross, we like to confess historic statements that have captured biblical truth for centuries. We carefully consider these statements before they are inserted into a worship service. Because we assume that nonbelievers are with us every Sunday morning, for which we are honored, we always begin these statements with the question, “Christian, what do you believe?” in order to protect the conscience of those who are not yet ready to call themselves, Christian.
The phrase from the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” tends to generate a lot of questions. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the phrase is just shocking. The image of Jesus walking about in a fiery chasm deep beneath the earth’s surface is staggering. This is not what’s behind the statement.
So what does this statement, “He descended into hell,” mean? The statement can be summarized like this: “Jesus died a real death and, therefore, secured a real victory.” More simply put, “If He rose from the dead, He most certainly descended to the dead.” Even more simply than this, “Jesus descended to the dead.” One seventeenth century confession summarizes it like this: “Christ’ s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day” (WLC 50). A sixteenth century pastor puts it this way: “this means nothing else than that [His soul] experienced the same condition as other souls separated from their bodies” (Peter Martyr Vermigli).
To affirm that Jesus’ death was a real death is to keep in mind that when the creed mentions hell, it does not mean the word gehenna, the New Testament word for the real, physical location for hell. The Apostles’ Creed never refers to gehenna, but rather to sheol (in Hebrew), or hades (in Greek). In Latin, the creed uses ad inferna or ad inferos, but not as a reference to hell as a physical location.
The emphasis of sheol and hades is not location, but state of existence, an existence of disembodied life. The descent does not refer to location, but to a state of existence. Sheol and hades and ad inferos refer to the state of being dead rather than the physical location of where someone goes after death. In the Old Testament, sheol is translated most often as “grave” in order to emphasize death as a state. Of course, the Bible clearly teaches that hell is a real, physical place reserved for the ungodly who do not meet God’s righteous judgment. Jesus, however, did not visit this place. He did, however, experience real death.
What we need to hear in this phrase is that what happens to everyone who dies, really happened to Jesus, too. In His death, he entered the deepest humiliation of human existence by experiencing death to its completion. Jesus experienced all of the sufferings of death, yet the Apostles’ Creed teaches that He experienced this at His time of death, not after. The creed does not teach that Jesus swam through the lake of fire or preached to disembodied souls.
Because Jesus died a real death, His victory over sin and death was also real. We read in 1 Corinthians 15 that if the death was not real, the resurrection could not be a real resurrection. If His death was somehow different from our own death, how then can our resurrection be anything like His resurrection? Yet, the Bible affirms that His resurrection is the “firstfruits” of our own resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.20, 23). If the death of Jesus was not real, then it would never account for the very real death that is the result of Adam’s sin: “for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15.22). The victory of the gospel comes about through Jesus’ victory over the punishment of death. If He doesn’t “swallow up“ death (1 Corinthians 15.54; Isaiah 25.8), then there is no resurrection victory.
Because “he descended into hell” can be so confusing, should we stop confessing the Apostles’ Creed as a church? We must remember that the Apostles’ Creed formed an integral part of the Christian life for many centuries, not just as a confession, but as theological instruction. The Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed have formed the backbone of church curriculum over the centuries (see J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way).
In addition, when we truly believe that Jesus experienced the forsakenness of His Father in a real death (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), we are personally assured that this forsakenness will never encompass us. Hanging on the cross, Jesus turns to the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that we might receive the end of Psalm 22, “the afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever!” When we confess the Apostles’ Creed, we praise God that Jesus died a real death to secure a real victory for the saints.
There’s much more to say. Justin Dillehay has written an easy-to-follow summary, Is It Okay to Confess That Jesus Descended into Hell?, which is actually a review of an entire book on the subject (and it’s not the only one).