In this series on the basics of the Christian faith, I have been using the Apostles’ Creed as an outline. A reader raised a question about the line, “He descended into hell.”
Just like when we read the Bible, sometimes it can be difficult to make sense of a term used by people in the early church in a different way than we use it now. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol was used to refer to the place or realm of the dead. Sometimes this is translated “grave,” or “pit.” In the New Testament, the Greek word Hades is used for the same idea. It was the place where all the dead went, though not all had the same experience. (See Luke 16:19-31.) All Bible passages that are invoked to support the inclusion of this line in the creed use the term Hades. NT passages that refer to the place of punishment use the Greek word gehenna.
Wayne Grudem notes that the creed was developed over a period from 200-750 AD. The earliest version to include this line did not appear until 390, and all indications are that it meant simply that Jesus had indeed experienced death. Moreover, the line did not appear in another version until 650. Grudem argues that the line ought to be dropped from the creed. Even the Roman Catholic Church agrees with this interpretation as can be seen here.
The bottom line is, Jesus did not go to Hell, if by that you mean the place of punishment. He experienced death in order to satisfy God’s justice for our sin so that we could be reconciled to God.