Here’s the relevant passage from the Apostles’ Creed:
… conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty…
(Scriptural adumbrations and references can be found here.)
In recent years, the Descent into Hell has gradually been ameliorated or even eliminated from the Creed, although it’s right there in the Latin: descendit ad inferos. But what does it mean? A challenging piece in Religion Dispatches tackles the subject head-on:
It was Saturday that Jesus Christ went to Hell.” This is one phrase that Christians, whether mainline or evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, will likely not hear from the pulpit this week. And yet the story of Christ’s descent to the underworld has deep roots in tradition.
The fourth century Apostle’s Creed tells us that following his crucifixion, but before his resurrection, Jesus “descended to the dead.” The Athanasian Creed of at least a century later is more explicit, Christ “descended into hell.” Depending on context and translation Jesus either journeyed to Sheol, Hades, or Hell. But allowing for differences in language Christianity held—and technically still holds as a central tenet—the view that Jesus spent the gap between his death and resurrection “harrowing” Hell, that is journeying to the underworld to liberate the imprisoned souls of the Hebrew patriarchs who had been imprisoned there since their deaths.
Contemporary congregations will often translate “hell” into a more palatable “death” or “the grave.” There is something unseemly in the idea of Jesus among the murders, rapists, fornicators and heretics of Hell. And yet it was central to Christological accounts of salvation for two millennia that God Himself be present in the lowest rung of creation to justify redemption for all mankind.
Holy Saturday was a day in which God was not in His heaven, but rather in his Hell.
To me, this is one of the most overlooked tenets of the Christian faith, so I have treated it at some length in my forthcoming book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, out this summer from my PJ Media colleague Roger Kimball’s Encounter Books. A teaser:
The phrase “descended into Hell” has become so controversial within Christianity that is often now dropped from the prayer. It has been interpreted to mean that Christ did not literally descend into Hell on the Saturday after the Crucifixion, that is, into Satan’s abode, but rather dwelled among the dead, those deprived of the Light, there to give witness to the Good News of the imminent Resurrection. Augustine taught that Christ actually went to Hell, but he expressed puzzlement over the implication of his belief; Aquinas wrote that Christ visited both Purgatory (where the souls confined there would eventually be saved) and Hell itself, to shame unbelievers (which seems a bit of an un-Christ-like victory lap).
In more recent cultural history, we have a parallel in the most influential work of art of the nineteenth century: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen… In the Ring—which employs Nordic saga as semi-Christian allegory; at the end of his life, Wagner embraced Christianity explicitly in Parsifal and apparently was bruiting an opera about Christ himself when he died in Venice in 1883—Wotan brings about his own God-crisis, first by his brazen theft of the Rhine Gold and then via his concupiscence. Like the priapic gods of Greek and Roman myth, he has gotten himself into trouble by heedlessly fathering the long-separated Wälsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde.
But Christ is a greater hero than Siegfried, and a greater God than Wotan; not only does he face the most horrible and agonizing of deaths, but he ventures into the lair of Death itself and (unlike Wotan) destroys it. Death’s eradication might take a while—it might take from here to Eternity—but it has been done, and one can only imagine the consternation of the demons as they watched the Principal Enemy enter into their own kingdom and slay Death itself. “And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven,” says Jesus to the disciples in Luke 10:18-19. “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.”
You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.