The Apostles' Creed is the bastion of faith in the eyes of many orthodox Christians. Traditional congregations recite it regularly and in many ways it is the ultimate statement of faith.
"Creed" comes from the Latin credo meaning "I believe" and it runs as an affirmation of mainstream Christian belief:
"I believe in God the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son, our Lord."
And it continues.
But suddenly in the fourth clause you get the phrase "he [Jesus] descended into hell".
This statement is one of the most controversial aspects to what is otherwise a relatively orthodox statement. The rest of the creed contains weighty theological statements which most consider fundamental to our faith such as Christ's crucifixion, death and resurrection.
Surprisingly there is relatively little biblical basis for this clause. The primary biblical justification is found in 1 Peter 3.18-20:
"For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring to to God.
"He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water."
So what does that mean? And why does it deserve a place in a short summary of the essential aspects of the Christian faith?
There are differing positions, even among conservative theologians, on what happened here.
For Martin Luther, Jesus' time in hell was part of his victory of Satan and death. He focused on the Greek word for "proclamation" which is kerusso, which means to herald or publish officially. It is different from the Greek word to evangelise, euaggelizo. Luther saw Jesus' journey as a victory trip rather than an opportunity for the damned to be saved. By going to hell before his resurrection, Jesus' not only defeated death but rescued believers from the power of the devil.
However John Calvin sees Jesus' descent into hell as part of his punishment on the cross where he took the burden of sin. The Swiss reformer thought that if omitted it would remove a key part of how Christ defeated death. He saw it as essential aspect of theology: "If it is left out," Calvin wrote, "much of the benefit of Christ's death will be lost".
J I Packer on the other hand says that his "descent" was to Sheol, or Hades, which is different from modern understanding of hell. In Hebrew understanding Sheol was a place for all dead souls, both the righteous and the unrighteous. Packer argues Jesus' descent was not for punishment but for redemption. He writes that by descending into Sheol, Jesus freed the souls of the righteous people in the Old Testament. Packer does not see this as an opportunity for those who had died unrighteous to have a "second chance" but only for all those "who died trusting him".
John Piper takes a different approach. He suggests it refers to Noah's day where Jesus' spirit spoke through him to the disobedient. "I don't take this verse to refer to Jesus' going to the place of the dead and preaching to the spirits there," he wrote.
Wayne Grudem, another conservative evangelical, argues the phrase should be removed from the creed altogether. He points to Jesus' promise to the thief: "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23.42) as evidence Jesus immediately joined his Father in heaven. "We need not fear death," Grudem writes, "not only because eternal life lies on the other side but also because we know that our saviour himself has gone through exactly the same experience we will go through." Grudem says when reciting the creed, he stays silent for the line in question.
If you are interested in finding out more and deciding for yourself what you think happened to Jesus I have included links to articles about all the theologians in question.