This phrase of the Apostles’ Creed may be the most inscrutable. Christians in different traditions have understood it differently. It is unlikely that it refers to a point chronologically after Jesus’ bodily death and burial, a point at which his soul “went down” to a tormented netherworld, some metaspatial hinterland where his spiritual sufferings continued for a time until his resurrection. Remember, he promised the thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). And with his last breath he committed his spirit into his Father’s hands (Luke 23:46). Apparently Jesus believed that, as his earthly life expired, he would be received by God his Father in heaven without a stopover in hell. The credal reference to his descent into hell, then, speaks to the nature of what he suffered on the cross. We often summarize the Gospel this way: “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” His descent into hell is how he did that. We understand it to be a soteriological statement; on the cross, Jesus suffered the holy wrath of God for the sins of his people.
This doesn’t make the event itself any less inscrutable, though. What does it mean, that Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18)? What exactly happened, and how did it “work”? Heaven and hell are “places” (real, but surpassing our comprehension) defined primarily by relationship to God. God is present in both places—otherwise, they would not maintain their existence. Being in heaven means being with God in mutual love. Being in hell means being in God’s presence, but without him, not in mutual love. So the sinless Jesus Christ suffered the relational chasm from God that we in our sins deserve. On the cross—in our stead, on our behalf, for our sake—Jesus went to the impossible place of being absolutely cut off from God in God’s holy presence. He experienced God’s presence as hell so that we might experience God’s presence as heaven. He went alone into “the outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13), into “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:48). “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Somehow, we find our reconciliation to God in his descent into hell.
Have you thought about heaven and hell in relational terms before? Why do our sins deserve hell? How could it be possible that Jesus would suffer relational separation from God? Does this mean the temporary disintegration of the Trinity? How could it be possible that his suffering hell for us would result in our enjoying heaven? Why does our salvation “work” this way? Did it have to be this way? Does any of this bother you? Whose idea was all this? What are some other biblical passages that talk about Christ’s suffering on the cross in terms of our redemption or atonement or salvation? Are you even interested in any of this?