Have you ever sat down and read some of the creeds of the Christian faith? I’ve recently been looking at the Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest that has been preserved for us. It’s amazing to how the early church distilled the essentials of Christian doctrine: An early formulation (although without explicit explanation) of the doctrine of the Trinity (“I believe in God the Father . . . and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son . . . I believe in the Holy Ghost”). The distinction of the creator from His creation (“Maker of heaven and earth”). Jesus’ virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection on the third day.
And in the middle of it, there’s this odd line:
“He descended into hell.”
Not too long ago, the question of what this means came up when we were visiting some old friends for dinner. They attend a church that recites the creed as part of its liturgy and our friend found he couldn’t recite this portion. The idea of Jesus going to Hell didn’t make sense and he wondered if I could explain. So I started to see what I could find out. While researching, I turned to J.I. Packer’s little book, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed and found an interesting explanation. What Packer asserts is that the part of the problem—aside from the creedal statement being based on an extremely difficult verse to interpret (1 Pet. 3:18-20)—is a translation issue. Here’s what Packer writes:
The English is misleading, for “hell” has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed. Originally “hell” meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol. That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, “thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades” (so RSV: av has “hell”), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27-31). But since the seventeenth century “hell” has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name is Gehenna. What the Creed means, however, is that Jesus entered, not Gehenna, but Hades—that is, that he really died, and that it was from a genuine death, not a simulated one, that he rose.
In other words, while one must be careful to avoid speculation on the precise meaning of a difficult text, what this could mean is that the creed is saying that Jesus really died—He didn’t fake it as some suggest (such as proponents of the swoon theory—that he merely passed out on the cross and people thought he was dead; incidentally, here’s a great clip of Matt Chandler’s reaction to that theory). But all speculation aside, here’s why Packer suggests this line of the creed matters so much:
What makes Jesus’ entry into Hades important for us is not, however, any of this, but simply the fact that now we can face death knowing that when it comes we shall not find ourselves alone. He has been there before us, and he will see us through.
Because Jesus has conquered death, it no longer has power over us. Christ’s victory is complete and we need not fear. “He has been there before us, and he will see us through.”