|From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase|
There are varying opinions as to what was intended by this phrase, but no conclusive answers. For this and several other reasons, Christians should view this creed with caution.
The Misnamed "Apostles' Creed"
Before we address our reader's question, here is the full text of the creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into Hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
The origins of the creed are obscure. A tradition that grew up in early centuries of the church said that it was actually composed by the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, but there is no Scriptural support for this. Also, the wording of the creed changed over time. The words, "He descended into Hell," were added in the fourth century.
Varying Opinions, But No Conclusive Evidence
So what does the phrase really mean? This is not the postmodern question, "What does it mean to us?" The real question is, "What did the authors, the men who added the phrase to the creed fifteen hundred years ago, mean by it?"
The short and simple answer is that we do not know precisely what they meant. Based on statements of post-apostolic church writers, it is thought that they had in mind the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost, where he refers to the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 16:
Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades [i.e., the realm of the dead, Sheol in Psalm 16], nor did His flesh see corruption. (Acts 2:29-31)
However, we have no direct evidence that this is the passage they had in mind. Others believe they may have had other passages in view - either instead of Acts 2 or in addition to it - from Ephesians and First Peter:
Therefore He says: "When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men." (Now this, "He ascended" - what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)" (Ephesians 4:8-10)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)
Some commentators, including John Calvin, have said that the phrase "He descended into Hell" is a summary and reiteration of the phrase, "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried." But it seems doubtful that the addition would have been made for such a reason.
Others have thought that it was added in answer to those who claimed that Christ did not actually die on the cross, but only became unconscious, or "died" only in some spiritual sense.
Others, such as the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, taught that "He descended into Hell" meant that Jesus went both into Hell and into Purgatory in the time between His death and resurrection. The Council of Trent, following Aquinas' lead, said that the phrase meant that Christ liberated "pious men" of the Old Testament from Limbo. But in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI abolished Limbo as a tenet of Catholic doctrine. Rome has not fully clarified what this means for the souls that it claimed were liberated from Limbo when Christ "descended into Hell."
About ten years ago, I heard the pastor of a purportedly conservative Presbyterian church I was visiting preach a heresy associated with this phrase in the creed. I've since encountered it elsewhere. He said that "He descended into Hell" meant that Jesus' sufferings for sin did not end on the cross, and that He experienced further punishment in Hell between the cross and the resurrection. This is plainly contrary to many statements of Scripture, including Jesus' own triumphal one from the cross, "It is finished!" (Greek tetelestai, "It is paid in full"). After the service I questioned that pastor about his statement, and he gave this classically postmodern answer: "I know I can't point to any passage to clearly support what I said. I just think that's the way it was, so that's how I preach it." So much for the authority of Scripture!
An Out-of-Place Statement
These are just a few among the range of proposed interpretations of "He descended into Hell" that are to be found in the visible church. They cover the spectrum all the way from the credible, to the doubtful, to the heretical. This phrase has caused all sorts of trouble in the church, which is what usually happens when people place their primary focus on a man-made statement instead of the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God.
The phrase, "He descended into Hell," has tenuous Biblical support from any passage, and we do not know exactly what the men who added it to the creed intended by it. Their intention may have been fully orthodox, or it may have been something else. We simply do not know for certain.
Also, in all other respects the creed summarizes points of Christian doctrine that are non-negotiable fundamentals. This questionable phrase is simply out of place among such statements.
Other Problems With the Creed
In addition to those I've already mentioned, the creed has other internal problems.
God the Father alone is not "the Maker of Heaven and Earth" as the creed implies. The Trinity is, and Jesus is spoken of specifically in many passages as the creator and sustainer of the universe (e.g., John 1:3 and Colossians 1:15-17).
The term "catholic" presents real difficulties. I know the term "catholic" with a small "c" has a meaning different from that of "Catholic" - the one means "universal" while the other means "Romish." But for the average person who walks in the church door and hears the creed recited, that is a distinction without a difference. We should avoid things - especially man-made formulations - that by their nature tend to breed confusion in the church. This is especially true in the present day, when most Evangelical churches have altogether forgotten what it means to be Protestant, and when reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches and seminaries tolerate or openly embrace the Rome-ward "Reformed Catholicity" movement that also goes by the names Shepherdism, the Federal Vision, and the New Perspective on Paul.
Finally, the creed has long been a broad statement embraced by both the orthodox and the heterodox. Yes, you will hear it recited in many churches that are still true to the Word and still preach the one true Gospel. But you will also hear it recited in liberal mainline churches, in nominally Evangelical churches that no longer preach the Gospel, in spiritually dead Anglican churches, and during the Roman Catholic mass. In the eyes of the unbelieving world, the universal recitation of the creed makes it appear that all "Christians" really believe the same thing, when the reality is quite different. Those who hold to the true faith should be doing everything possible to distinguish themselves from those who do not.
For all of these reasons, I do not use the so-called Apostles' Creed personally, and I do not encourage others to use it.