He was . . . made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in bondage (1 Peter 3:19).
A couple of weeks ago my wife was searching the internet for videos that we could use in our worship service. We were coming up on the Sunday that would launch us back into the Apostles’ Creed series. Perhaps a good video might be effective in getting the content of the creed back in the minds of the congregation.
As she searched she came across a video montage of ordinary looking people saying the Apostles’ Creed. The camera shot switched from one person to the next as each spoke a different line of the creed - simple but on target, just what we needed. But there was one problem.
The focal phrase for the week was to be “He descended into hell.” The video montage skipped that line. They didn’t say it. One person said something about Jesus being crucified, dead and buried. The next person said “on the third day he arose from the dead.” No descent to hell.
We’re not going to skip it. However, the line is perplexing and it merits some explaining.
Without getting bogged down in history or the finer points of biblical exegesis, here are some things you might keep in mind. First of all, there’s a substantial representation of Christians who do not say “he descended into hell.” Part of the reason for that might be that only one version of the creed prior to AD 640 has this line. Many other early versions don’t have it, so some omit the line given the lack of textual support.
Nevertheless, for 1300 years much of the Christian church has said these words, so we need to wrestle with what they might mean. Three options have emerged: (1) some understand the descent to hell as a reference to the grave. It is another way of saying that Jesus truly died. (2) Others say it really does mean that Jesus went to the region of the condemned. They cite 1 Peter 3:19 for support of this position. (3) Others say that the descent to hell was the spiritual separation from God the Father that Jesus experienced in his death on the cross (See Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot, 87-91).
A decent case can be made for each of these understandings of what it means to say “he descended into hell.” But there is another reason – not as scholarly – for saying these words when we say the creed. Maybe we say this because we know that descent in our own lives. We know what it is to endure some form of hell as we live with the brokenness of this world.
Sometimes that descent carries us to a deep darkness in our family life, in our physical bodies, or maybe in our emotions and thoughts. Sometimes the decent carries us into the poverty and wreckage of the inner cities or places where destruction is rampant like Japan or Haiti. There is no shortage of people who can testify that hell is real and you don’t have to go too far to find it.
So this is what we believe: Whatever your hell might be, Jesus already knows it. He has been there, done that. There is no hell you can live through that he hasn’t already been through. There is no descent deep enough to exceed is reach or his knowledge.
However you understand it, it’s worth saying with confidence. “He descended into hell.” The good news (and we’ll get to this later) is that he didn’t stay there – and he doesn’t intend for you to stay there either.
We give you thanks, Lord Jesus, for your descent to us in all of our brokenness. In mercy you embraced all that it means to live in this world. Thank you for being faithful to us in the deepest darkness. Teach us to trust you in those places, patiently waiting for the day when you will make all things new and whole. Amen.