Since we have started using the Apostles’ Creed at Mass in place of the Nicene Creed, several people have asked me about the meaning of the line, “He descended into hell.” What does this mean? First of all, this is not hell in the sense of condemnation. It rather means the abode of the dead, especially for those who died prior to Jesus’ salvific death and resurrection.
One interpretation is that following his burial Jesus descended to the netherworld to proclaim redemption to those saints of the Old Testament – like King David, Noah, the prophets, John the Baptist, etc., who were awaiting His saving death. Jesus freed them from the grip of death and ushered them into heaven. On Holy Saturday Jesus was busy freeing all the holy people who had died before Him.
There is Scriptural background for this interpretation. For example, in the second reading we had two weeks ago, on the First Sunday of Lent, we heard from St. Peter’s First Letter, “Put to death in the flesh, he (Jesus) was brought to life in the Spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient…” ch 3 vs 19.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read: “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore, it says: “He ascended” on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men.” What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended into the lower [regions] of the earth? The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.
This understanding – that Jesus descended into hell to set free those good people held captive there – is probably the more common interpretation of this article of the Creed. As we see, it is supported by both St. Peter and St. Paul.
However, there is at least one other interpretation, including the one I favor. This interpretation views hell not as a place, but rather as the condition of alienation from God. Heaven is union with God, and hell is just the opposite, i.e. extreme separation from God. Jesus, in His work of saving us, went as far away from God as sinful humankind had gone, in order to bring us back from the very farthest reaches of our sinfulness. Jesus “traveled” as far from God as we had gone and yet remained totally obedient to the Father. There is nowhere, not even the depths of hell, where Jesus’ grace cannot penetrate. As far as we had moved away from God, Jesus went there to bring us back.
This second interpretation is based on Scripture passages like what we heard in the second reading on Ash Wednesday, from the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” God made Jesus to be sin, i.e. not that Jesus committed any sins, but that rather Jesus experienced our alienation and separation from God. And that is what hell is. Jesus experienced our alienation (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and yet Jesus remained perfectly obedient to God. Jesus was faithful as far as the furthest extent that we were unfaithful. In this more psychological sense, Jesus “descended into hell.”
So in any case, the statement in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended into hell” is an affirmation of the power of Jesus’ salvific death and resurrection.