When we come to this section of the Apostles Creed we come to a conundrum. What does it mean that Jesus descended into Hell? Have you encountered something like this before that seems on the surface so simple, but is extremely complicated. Perhaps you will think of your phone. On the surface it seems simple enough, you press the number and it calls someone, but the science underneath is complicated and involves things that most people do not understand, myself included. While this is not a perfect analogy, there is no such thing, it can help us to better understand what the Creed means when it says descended into hell.
Where to Begin?
The place I think we should begin when thinking about this part of the creed is to look at things in chronological order. We start with the death of Jesus. This is important because it is during the crucifixion of Christ that we get the first important part of correctly interpreting this part of the creed. In Luke's gospel account we get this record of Jesus speaking to one of the thieves that are being crucified with him. He says;
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” - Luke 23:43.
Jesus tells the thief that they will be together in paradise. So if Jesus is in paradise the same day that he dies when does he descend into hell? Did the writers of the Apostles Creed forget about this part of the story? I don't think so. I think the issue that we have when talking about this line has more to do with our faulty understanding of the concept of death and hell in scripture.
What is Hell?
In scripture we see several different passages dealing with what happens to people after they die. The first thing we want to make clear is that Hell, as in the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, that will be where all those who reject God will be for eternity, does not have anyone in it currently. Revelation 20:14 tells us that after the white throne judgment when all the people of the world are judged they are then thrown into the lake of fire. This is the place that has been prepared for Satan and his angels. On a minor side note, Satan will not rule this place, it is a place where he will be in torment along with everyone else. But back to our point. Hell as we think of it, being the place of eternal torment, is currently empty. There is another place, which is referred to as Death and Hades, or Sheol that is where people go when they die and are there until the judgment at the end. We are not given much about this place. Only getting glimpses. But this should be enough for our purpose today.
Where did Christ go then?
I believe what the creed is teaching us, and there is plenty of room for disagreement here, is not that Jesus went to a place of punishment, but that Jesus suffered the fullness of human death. When the creed talks about descending into hell it is saying that he went to the place that is on Abraham's side of Sheol (See Luke 16:19-31). Part of the purpose of the creed is to communicate the full humanity and full deity of Christ. This part helps us to understand that Christ truly died the death of humanity, in every aspect, except for sin.
What Does This Mean for Me?
You might be asking why is this important, or why does this matter. It matters because we know that Jesus fully paid the price for our sin. In John, we read that "it is finished." Not that it was partially finished or potentially finished but completely finished. Paid in full. This is part of it. Another part is to take comfort in knowing that we can come to Christ and that he knows all of our sufferings and temptations. When Paul writes to the Hebrews he makes it clear that this is the source of our confidence.
"For we do not have a high preist who is unable to sympathize wiht our weakness, but one wh in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." - Hebrews 4:15-16
So rejoice in knowing that Christ knows what you are going through and knows it to the fullest. Rest in him and come boldly before the throne of grace. Come with the boldness of a child who knows that his father loves him.
Soli Deo Gloria