The most difficult phrase of the Apostles’ Creed is the final one in the section on Christ’s suffering, “He descended into hell.” No small amount of debate exists regarding its meaning and the value of keeping it. But, as I mentioned in my first reflection on the Apostles’ Creed, sometimes the more vexing parts of creeds and confessions can illumine our blind spots. Before we cast aside this difficult phrase, we should consider whether or not it captures a biblical principle that we would do well to consider more in our own lives. For this reflection, I want to briefly mention the interpretive options that have been presented.
But before we get to the interpretive options, we have to talk linguistics. As one of my seminary professors has pointed out, there is ambiguity in the Old Testament when it comes to the destination of those who die. The Old Testament term “Sheol” sometimes has a neutral meaning of “the abode of the dead” and sometimes has a negative meaning as “the place of the wicked or fools.” This ambiguity continues to be reflected to a degree in the Greek translation of the Old Testament because the Greek word “hades” translates the Hebrew “Sheol” without any differentiation.
In the New Testament, “hades” is also used in a more generic sense as the abode of the dead. For example, Jesus says that the gates of hell (hades) will not prevail against his church and does not necessarily mean the place of the wicked or fool. This is contrasted with another term used by Christ to designate the place of eternal punishment: Gehenna. Thus, even though our English Bibles use hell with all its modern connotations, we need to consider the context to get a more precise understanding of the word’s meaning.
Finally, turning to Latin, the Latin translation of the Bible translates the Greek “hades” with the word infernus and transliterates Gehenna, thus preserving some of the distinction between the abode of the dead/the grave and eternal punishment from the New Testament. Now, this Latin word infernus is what is used in the original Latin text of the Apostles’ Creed and which is translated into English as “he descended into hell.”
That said, the weight of the meaning of “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed leans towards interpretations that reflect the more generic sense of “hell” as the abode of the dead or the grave. Nevertheless, there exist various interpretations that flow from this grammatical point that we must consider.
One of the oldest interpretations of this phrase is that Christ descended into limbo to rescue the Old Testament saints. This view, however, has no solid biblical support. It rests on a suspect interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19-20 and unnecessarily restricts the salvific plan of God before the incarnation by relegating true believers in the Old Testament to limbo until Christ came.
Two more related views see this phrase as describing a literal descent into hell, i.e. the place of the wicked. One of these views envisions Christ giving a second chance to the dead for salvation. The other view proposes that Christ physically descended into hell to conquer Satan. Neither of these views is tenable, however. The former contradicts the testimony of Scripture that judgment follows death (cf. Heb 9:27). The latter is based on speculation and draws attention away from Christ’s victory on the cross (Heb 2:14).
Another view understands this statement to describe the “living hell” of Christ the righteous taking on the sin of his unrighteous people. This view has biblical support, beginning with Christ’s grief in the garden of Gethsemane and continuing through his cry of dereliction on the cross. As an explanation of this phrase, it is somewhat awkward given that it pertains to his suffering before death and burial. Nevertheless, it is a biblical and helpful idea to consider the intense spiritual suffering of Christ for our sins.
A final view understands this phrase to mean that Christ, upon his burial and death, remained in the state of death for a period of time. This view has biblical support, reflecting the “sign of Jonah” being fulfilled by Christ as he remained in the grave for three days. This view also does justice to the linguistic considerations that I mentioned earlier in this reflection. It also seems fitting given the position of this phrase in the creed. And, to add more weight to this view, it was proposed as early as the 4th century. This is the view that I adopt, but the view of intense spiritual suffering is also a valid one to consider.