Summary: In the Creed there is the statement "He descended into Hell", omitted by many fundamental church congregations: why?!
“He Descended into hell”
Thomas F. Bracewell, OSL
Following His crucifixion Christ physical body lay sealed in a tomb for three days. Where did His Spirit go during that period of time? According to St. Peter, “Christ died for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water and this water symbolizes baptism that saves you also - not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone to heaven and is at God’s right hand - with angles, authorities, and powers in submission to him”. 1 Peter 3:18-22, NIV
There are two versions of the Apostles Creed in our United Methodist Hymnal. One is the regular form that has been widely used by American Methodist for generations and the other is the ecumenical form traditionally used by Lutherans, Episcopalians, some Presbyterians and Orthodox Churches. It contains the statement, “He descended into Hell”. Even among these churches where there is more of an attempt to accept the creed in its original form but even so there are still those who remain silent or simply mouth the statement “He descended into Hell”. There is perhaps no article in the Apostles’ Creed which Christians are more inclined to omit than this one. Somewhere between the time Mr. Wesley began to cultivate his group of Methodist followers and the establishment of a Methodist identity in Great Britain, this phrase became omitted from the standard Apostles’ Creed in those newly established frontier churches in America. Apparently this phrase “descended into hell”, offended someone’s sensitivities early on in American Methodism and that caused it to be dropped. What is its meaning anyway? This sermon attempts to present facts both from the scripture and from thoughts of some of our best theologians and philosophers. It cannot give a definite answer but does draw many facts together for you to decide for yourself, as any good sermon should.
The ancient teaching of the church is that all who died before the crucifixion, whether they were righteous or unrighteous, went to the same undifferentiated realm of the dead, where they wait for the resurrection and the judgment. Best identified as sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek and neither of these terms refers to punishment. Our best understanding is that of a waiting room for the resurrection and judgement.
When Jesus died on the cross, He really did die. Because of this very real death, He went spiritually into hades, because hades if the realm of the dead. Remembering what Jesus said to the thief on the cross that “this day you shall be with me in paradise.” This is a historical teaching of the Church; that when Jesus descended into hades he established a special waiting room for His own called Paradise. He preached to the spirits who were already dead and took the Old Testament saints into Paradise also, along with that thief on the cross.
At the crucifixion the Apostle Matthew wrote, “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. An, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened ; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection; and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Matthew 27:50 - 52 (English-KJV) This suggest that Jesus went to the place of the dead to set the saints free. Jesus also walked the earth after rising from the dead and before being taken to heaven and there is no suggestion in the Bible that these saints continued to exist among mankind but also ascended into heaven. Matthew again writes; “ For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40 : English - NIV) Heart of the earth here is a revelation of more than being in a tomb but actually being in a place within the heart of the earth reserved for the dead. “Jesus came to set the prisoners free” is a common theme of the Christian Church even today. What is freedom except the salvation from death eternal and from the fear of death..