Q. The Apostles’ Creed said, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended to hell.” Did Jesus descend into hell? Or is the creed wrong?
A. No, I don’t think He did, as I think the problem is with the old English usage, not the creed itself. This misunderstanding is reinforced by Acts 2:31 in KJV:
• Acts 2:31 He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in hell, neither His flesh did see corruption.
However, if you use the NASB, you will read:
• Acts 2:31 he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY.
Quoting from Vines Expository Dictionary of NT Words, Hades is “the region of departed spirits of the lost, including the blessed dead in periods preceding the ascension of Christ. It corresponds to “Sheol” in the OT. In the AV of the OT and NT; it has been unhappily rendered “hell”.
Many scholars believe the creed comes from the Roman Symbol (or Creed) written in the first or second century. The phrase “He descended to hell” was not in the Roman Symbol, but added later. The English word “hell” in the creed translates the Greek word κατώτατα, which literally means “lower” i.e. He descended to the “lower parts”, or the “underworld”. As such, the original simply meant He went to the “world of the dead”, with no implications of suffering in “hell” as we understand the word today.
But the positive reason why I believe Jesus did not go to literal hell (Greek Gehenna or Tartarus) is:
• Lk 23:42-43 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
The criminal crucified beside Jesus repented and was forgiven, so he went to be with Jesus in Paradise. So if Jesus was in Paradise, He was not in hell. Even if you interpret Paradise to be “that part of Hades which was thought by the Jews to be the abode of the souls of pious until the resurrection”, it is still not hell as understood today.