What does this phrase in the Apostle's Creed mean?
Hell can mean three things in scripture:
1. The Grave
2. The Place of Damnation
3. Extreme Distress and Anguish
Which is the way the phrase is meant in the Apostles Creed?
1. The Grave. The brief Apostle's Creed wouldn't have a redundant line in it. He was crucified, dead, and buried. He went to the grave?
2. The Place of Damnation. The divinity of Christ could not descend there, because God is everywhere already. The body could not descend there, because scripture says it was in the grave for three days. That only leaves the soul.
Did Christ's soul descend into hell? No. For three reasons, which are also three phrases spoken by Christ on the cross:
1. "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit." Now, the Father's hands could be in hell to catch Jesus' soul and protect him, but nowhere in scripture is this even implied. Furthermore:
2. "Today you will be with me in paradise." These words were spoken to the thief on the neighboring cross. This can only mean that the soul of the thief would be with the soul of Christ that very day in paradise. Paradise is not hell.
3. "It is finished." These words mean that Christ's work to save humanity is completed. If he still had further work to do in hell, such as rescue the Old Testament patriarchs, he wouldn't have said, "it is finished."
Further work in hell? There are two theories that Christ descended into hell in order to accomplish further work. The theories are these:
1. To liberate the OT fathers.
2. To declare victory to and strike terror in the hearts of devils.
However, we can conclude from scripture that:
1. The OT Fathers were not in hell. Jesus himself declares in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that Lazarus dies and goes immediately to Abraham's bosom, where there is no pain and one is in the hands of God the Father. This place where Abraham currently resides is Paradise, which Christ tells the thief about.
2. There is no place in scripture that declares that Christ gloats to demons. There is 1 Peter 3:19, but in context that means something completely different:
a. The entire letter of 1 Peter is about how to be a Christian, and the passage from 1 Peter 3:8-22 in particular is about evangelizing the lost and the Holy Spirit's work in the conversion of unbelievers.
b. Breaking down the passage, we see:
i. we are to be kindhearted
ii. we are not to respond to the evil of the world with evil but with blessing
iii. by embracing good, nothing can happen to our souls
iv. our bodies will be persecuted and we will suffer physically
v. be ready to defend your faith to the hostile world
vi. those who revile you will be put to shame
vii. suffer for doing right, not wrong
viii. Christ suffered also for what was right, to the point of death
ix. Now his spirit lives in us
x. Because his spirit lives in us, we can successfully proclaim the gospel to the lost, whose own spirits are imprisoned to sin
xi. In the days of Noah, 120 years passed in which not a soul responded to Noah's preaching. None were saved except Noah and his family.
xii. Now, with Christ's spirit in us, we are able share the gospel with the lost and have much better success.
xiii. Baptize all converts to represent their salvation from the flood of God's wrath.
c. Preaching the gospel to living bodies with dead souls may make them alive in the spirit. The passages in 1 Peter apply to living people, not souls in hell or devils.
3. Ephesians 4:9-10 is talking about Christ's incarnation (descending to Earth) and ascension. Match this with Philippians 2:5-11.
So, what does it mean that Christ descended into hell?
1. That Christ's soul suffered the extreme agony of the damned.
2. That he suffered these very things during his passion.
Why does "he descended into hell" appear in the creed after "he was buried?"
A: Because "he was crucified, died, and was buried" are taken together as sufferings of the body, and "he descended into hell" is taken as not only a summary of what precedes it but as a description of the suffering of Christ's soul.
Finally, why? Why did Christ suffer such torments of the soul?
1. That our souls may not go to hell.
2. That our souls may not ever suffer there.
3. That he may carry our souls into heaven.
Jesus Christ went through a great magnitude of suffering during his passion, such that the torments he went through can be accurately compared to the sufferings of the damned in hell for eternity. He suffered in this way, so that we may avoid the same, through faith in him. He not only keeps us out of hell and away from its torments, but he lifts us up and carries us with him to paradise, where we will know no pain, every tear shall be wiped from our eyes, and we will experience the eternal love of God in our souls forever.