He Descended Into Hell?
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 shocking. The picture of Jesus walking about in a fiery chasm deep beneath the earth’s surface is almost impossible to resist. This, however, is not a correct image and is not what’s behind the statement. What does this article mean? It is best to summarize the meaning like this: Jesus died a real death to secure a real victory.
To affirm that Jesus’ death was a real death is to affirm that His death was not unique to Him, that He somehow died differently than we die. When the creed mentions hell, it does not use the word gehenna, the New Testament word for the real, physical location for hell. The Apostles’ Creed does not refer to gehenna, but to sheol (in Hebrew) or hades (in Greek). Sheol and hades are not always understood in the Bible in exactly the same way, however. These terms most often refer to the state of death, rather than the location after death. This is why, in the Old Testament, sheol is translated most often as “grave.” The emphasis on sheol and hades is not location, but state of existence, an existence of disembodied life. The descent refers not to location, but to a state of existence that is far less noble than the state of life.
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. 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 fullest completion.
Because Jesus died a real death, His victory over sin and death was also real. We learn from 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 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.
We affirm this phrase for a few reasons. First, Protestant pastors affirmed it during the Reformation: “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; which has been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell” (WLC 50).
Second, 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 ages (see J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way).
Finally, when we truly believe that Jesus experienced the forsakenness of His Father in a real death (Matthew 27.46; Mark 15.34), we are 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!” Praise God that Jesus died a real death to secure a real victory for the saints.