Our reflection this week is on the paragraph, “He descended into hell, the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
Perhaps the most controversial line in the creed is “[Jesus] descended into hell.” Presumably, the biblical basis for this line is 1 Peter 3:19, which states that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirit in prison.” But does this mean Jesus went to hell between his death and resurrection? John Piper does not think so. He writes, “there is no textual basis in the NT for claiming that between Good Friday and Easter Christ was preaching to souls imprisoned in hell.”
Not only is there little biblical support for this view, but the claim is also inconsistent with Jesus’ statement, when he spoke to the thief next to him and assured him, that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Besides the view on hell, there have been two other meanings proposed throughout church history. John Calvin, for example, takes this phrase to mean that Christ suffered the pains of hell while on the cross. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), a document expounding Reformed doctrine, also holds to this view.
Others have understood it to mean that Christ continued in the “state of death” until his resurrection. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1647), Question 50 takes this approach: “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of death, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.”
What is the significance of the Apostles Creed for today? As D. A. Carson explains, the creed “very ably summarises the gospel itself in just a few sentences.” The affirmation that Jesus continued in a state of death was included as a corrective to heretical views that claim Jesus was less than fully human and that he did not die a human death. The gospel insists that Jesus died a real death and he rose on the third day, as the basis for the believer’s hope for bodily resurrection one day (1 Cor. 15).