I believe: He Descended
I beleive... ...Jesus Christ...
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell (or Hades);
Of all the parts of the creed, this has to be one of the strangest sounding bits to our ears. That is for good reason, it uses words that we don't associate with Jesus' death normally, but having said that, there is still some truth hiding under the strange nomenclature.
Before we come to what it does mean, let us first clear up what this phrase does not mean: Jesus did not go and suffer torment in hell after he died on the cross! The closest he came to suffering in hell was what he suffered while alive. Jesus is clear that his atoning work was done as he gave up his life: "Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (Jn 19:30).
Ok, so what was Jesus doing after he died, but before he rose to life again? There's a period there of about 36 hours (3 days in Jewish accounting) where Jesus is unaccounted for. His body was in the tomb, but where was his spirit?
Well, as with most stuff in the spiritual realm, the Bible does not give clear guidance on how it all works. It's kind of extra-dimensional place beyond the veil where things work differently. There is some mystery, and imprecise language. Jesus indicates to the repentant thief on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). So, we would expect Jesus to be heaven-bound after death, but there is also clear indications that Jesus had another mission objective he had to attend to before ascending in victory to sit at the right hand of the Father, namely, descending to the realm of the dead.
The Bible adopts words from both the ancient Hebrew and Greek understanding of the place where people's souls go when they die. The Old Testament frequently speaks of a place called Sheol, also know as the Grave, which is an underworld or unland where people's souls descend to be kept in a kind of non-existent existence (e.g. 1 Samuel 28:8–15, Numbers 16:31–33, Psalm 88:10–12, Isaiah 26:14). While a person's body was physically buried, their soul of the dead was understood to descend to a dark, dusty, silent, and tempestuous imprisonment (references available on request).
Similarly, in the New Testament the Greek word Hades is used as something of a "stand in" for Sheol because it is understood in a similar way, as place where people's souls descend when they die that is a kind of prison.
Jesus needed to go to this realm of the dead in order to fulfil prophecy, wherein the righteous anointed king would be brought down to the grave, and yet return from it! (e.g. Ps 16, 22:15, 30:9, 31:1:24, 86:13) The shadows and prophetic pictures of Jesus' decent to the grave are all over the Old Testament (e.g. Jonah, Daniel & lions den, Isaiah 53). Peter and Paul would famously use Psalm 16 in their sermons to illustrate how it was part of God plan for Jesus to go into, and return from, the grave.
Peter also seems to say in his first letter that Jesus' spirit got up to something after he died: "[Jesus] was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah" 1 Pe 3:18–20.
We discussed this verse some months ago in our Peter preaching series. We're not quite sure what Jesus was preaching, and to whom, but it was either victory proclamation to the rebellious spirits imprisoned there, or, a gospel declaration to the Old Testament saints who were waiting for Jesus to accomplish their salvation (it could be that these events was even after the Resurrection too).
So, we have several indications from prophecy, prophetic typology, and the way that the Apostles describe Jesus while dead, that indicate that Jesus went to the realm of the dead. But annoyingly, there is no itinerary or clear description of the mechanics of such an endeavour.
Some folks are convinced that all this talk of Jesus' spirit getting up to some hijinks while his body lay in the tomb is a step to far. They read all the passages about Jesus in the grave more "flatly", in that all the mentions of going down into Hades or Sheol is just a metaphoric way of speaking about being physically dead and buried. That is an ok place to land, but personally I feel that a mere physical grave doesn't fully explain the depth of meaning attributed to the grave across the breadth of the Bible.
But whichever way you go with how you understand Jesus' time in death, I'm sure we can all agree that the use of the word "hell" in English translations of the Creed are unhelpful. The Bible doesn't talk of Jesus going to the place of torment (e.g. lake of fire) while dead. The Creed has come to us through Greek and Latin versions over the centuries, and the Greek version unsurprisingly uses Hades, whereas the Latin had "inferna". Most commentators agree that the use of the word "hell" in this part of the creed was meant to mean "realm of the dead" in the same way that Hades or Sheol does, but it's just doesn't come across well not matter how you slice it. So in order to clear up any confusion, my practice and recommendation when reciting the creed has been to use the the clear English word "grave" or stick with "Hades".
It is worth being aware that this phrase He descended into hell (or Hades) was a later addition to the Apostle's Creed. This doesn't undermine it's credibility as an important statement, but it does illustrate that for some few hundred years after Jesus' death, Christians didn't feel the need to include this particular phrase in the summary of their faith. Nevertheless, it was clearly meant to reference to the fact that Jesus went to the "realm of the Dead". Whether that was a kind of underworld or merely a reference to his bodily enclosure in a tomb, Jesus Christ went down into the grave.
"For great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
O God, insolent men have risen up against me;
a band of ruthless men seeks my life,
and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."
Ps 86:13–15. ESV