Question: I recently heard Tony Campolo mention the Apostles' Creed and how basically it was an almost perfect summation of the right "stuff" to believe as an Evangelical. Upon seeking it out and reading the different versions for myself there was one part included in some versions that didn't sit well with me... "he descended into hell." Is this true? Did Christ really descend into hell between his crucifixion and resurrection? - K.L.
Many Christians throughout history have believed that Jesus went to hell during the three days after his death, either experiencing full punishment for our sins, or preaching to the damned, or releasing OT faithful from imprisonment (the so-called "harrowing of hell"). However, the four gospels say nothing about where Jesus was during those three days.
Why do some people believe in Jesus' descent to Hell? First, some later versions of the Apostles' Creed include the phrase "He descended into Hell," but the earliest versions don't include that phrase. (The phrase first shows up in the seventh version of the creed, in the works of Rufinus of Rome in AD 390.)
Second, some interpret 1 Pet 3:18-20 to mean that Jesus was in Hell; but most NT scholars don't think that's what Peter meant. It's a very difficult passage to understand, but it has several possible interpretations. When Peter says "He preached to the spirits in prison," it may be referring to spirits who are now in prison, but were not when he preached to them. We also don't know if he is referring to human spirits or demonic spirits. Other passages describe the cross as a proclamation of victory against the evil powers (Eph 3:10, Col 2:15). Peter may even be referring to the Spirit of Christ being preached through Noah, as he earlier said in 1 Peter 1:10-11.
Third, some people think that Ephesians 4:8-10 refers to Jesus' descent to Hell. But the passage, read carefully, probably refers to Christ's descent to earth, not Hell (note how the NIV and NLT correctly translate this passage).
So what's the bottom line? The idea that Jesus descended into Hell does not have firm scriptural support, although some believe in it based on 1 Peter 3:18-20. We should normally avoid building significant doctrines based on a single difficult passage. Whichever way you believe on this issue, this is a relatively minor issue, not one that Christians should fight over. Christ's victory on the cross and at the empty tomb is far more important than what happened during the three days between them.
The picture: Descent of Christ to Limbo, Andrea da Firenze, 1365.