My son is memorizing the Apostles’ Creed and asked me about the phrase, “He descended into hell.” Did Jesus really go to hell? I didn’t think he did, so I checked Wayne Grudem’s excellent Systematic Theology for an answer.
I discovered the Apostles’ Creed was not written by a single person or approved by a church council at a specific time. It gradually took form between 200 A.D. and 750 A.D. The first version, by St. Irenaeus, didn’t include the phrase, “He descended into hell.” Rather, Rufinus first inserted it in 390 A.D.
Rufinus, however, did not intend the phrase to mean that Christ descended into hell. He simply meant that Christ was “buried.” It was a literary device to emphasize that Christ actually died. Rufinus meant Jesus “descended into the grave.”
There were at least five more versions of the Creed after Rufinus, but none of them contained his expression. It wasn’t until 650 A.D. that someone inserted it again. Then, people didn’t seem to know Rufinus’ intended meaning of the phrase. They began to speculate as to how to harmonize the claim that Christ went to hell with the rest of Scripture. Some said Christ went to hades or the netherworld. Others said He actually went to hell. Of course, many today still try other ways to explain the phrase.
The bottom line is that the Apostles’ Creed didn’t originally include the phrase “He descended into hell.” Even when Rufinus inserted it, he never intended it to mean that Christ actually went to hell. This is besides the fact that there is no biblical justification for such a claim.
There seems to be at least three options for Christians today. One, they can recite the creed in its current form and simply remember in their mind that the phrase “He descended into hell” is a figure of speech for Christ descending into the grave. Two, they can recite the creed by changing the words to “He descended into the grave.” And three, they can simply omit the phrase.
Personally, I lean towards omitting the phrase when I recite the creed. Option two, however, is nice because you can keep speaking along with everyone else if you’re saying it in a group.
Grudem has an extended article on this question that was published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can read it here.