We say this when we affirm the Apostle’s Creed but there is much confusion and uncertainty around what it means. I think there are 2 very important truths we should be grasping. And I think there’s scope for some new “translation” to be done.
The English word “hell” has changed it’s meaning since the Creed was translated in 17th century. The word “hell” used to mean what the Bible describes as “Sheol” (OT) or “Hades (NT) ie. “the place of the dead” or “death” itself or “the place of the departed” as T.C Hammond says. This is what the Apostle’s Creed wanted to say about Jesus. At that time, some people questioned if Jesus as God really died. By saying “he descended into hell (Hades)” they made it clear Jesus fully experienced human death.
In the Creed, “descended into hell … and rose again from the dead” expressed what Peter says in Acts 2:27f about Jesus fulfilling Psalm 16:10 ie. you will not abandon my soul to “hell” (17th century King James Version) but translated now in N.I.V “to the realm of the dead”.
But the English meaning of the word “hell” has changed, according to Dr Jim Packer. It now means what the Bible calls “Gehenna” ie. “the final place of God’s eternal punishment”.
So our English translation of the Apostle’s Creed now contains 2 truths about Jesus death, not one as originally intended. Jesus “descended into hell” means both:
. a. Jesus really died physically on the cross ie. so our new Diocesan services translates this in the Creed as “descended to the dead”
. b. Jesus really faced the full penalty, punishment for our sins ON THE CROSS. When Jesus said “it is finished”, he meant he had taken the full wrath of God on the cross. I believe this truth, which is taught by the Bible but not intended by the original Creed, is worth us affirming today.
So in church, when we say “Jesus descended into hell” we should have both these truths in mind, and so say it confidently and with deep appreciation for what Jesus has done for us.