Q: Lately, it has been a point of contention on a popular Protestant radio program that Jesus did not descend into hell. The host points out that Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Why then does the creed say that Jesus descended into hell?
A: Because that’s where paradise was at the time. Paradise – the place of the God’s righteous ones – was not at that time located in heaven. It was a the Ascension of Christ that paradise was relocated to heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church records,
"[T]he souls of all the saints . . . since the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven -- have been, are and will be in heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature" (CCC 1023).
Prior to this time, paradise was located in hell.
What’s that you say? Hell is the place of the damned. How could paradise possibly be there? Ah, you reveal that you are a child of the twentieth century. In our day, the English word “hell” has come to take on the idea of being the place of the damned, but in prior eras, the word merely indicated the place of the dead in general, not a place of torment in particular. The original German term from which we get “hell” simply meant where the dead are.
It has only been very recently in the history of English that the term has taken on the exclusive meaning of the place of the damned. In fact, when the King James Version was being translated, it was still used in its broader sense of the place of the dead. Thus we read the King James Bible discussing Jesus’ soul being in hell:
"[David,] seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his [Christ's] soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses" (Acts 2:31-32).
Twentieth-century translations have the problem of how to deal with the fact that now the word “hell” means to most people “the place of the damned” and so to avoid implying Jesus went there, they use a different term when rendering this verse.
The Revised Standard Version transliterates the Greek word used here and speaks of “hades.” This Greek term, like the original meaning of the word “hell,” simply meant the place of the dead. Unfortunately, also like the word “hell,” the word “hades” has also taken on the connotation (but not quite as strongly) of being the place of the damned.
To sidestep this, the New International Version says Jesus was not abandoned to “the grave,” but this isn’t very satisfactory either because the Greek word “hades” meant more than “the grave.” It meant the netherworld.
This problem of references to the netherworld taking on connotations of the place of the damned has happened elsewhere, too. Originally, the Latin word infernum simply meant “the lower region” and was also used as a reference to the place of the dead. It, too, or rather its English derivative – inferno – has also acquired the firey connotations of the place of the damned, though these were lacking in its original use.
The only ancient language term I know of that this hasn’t happened to is the Hebrew word sheol, which (since it hasn’t been known to most English speakers) still simply means the place of the dead. The Revised Standard Version took the bold step of using this word when it appears in the Old Testament, but even though it is the Hebrew word that the Greek New Testament renders using hades, the RSV translators did not see fit to use it in the New Testament. If they had, it would have cut through the negative connotations associated with hell, hades, and inferno, but at the price of confronting the English-speaking reader with a totally unfamiliar word used in familiar New Testament passages.
In any event, the reason that we say in the Apostles Creed that Jesus descended into hell is because he did. He descended to the place of the dead. Whether one is most comfortable calling it sheol, hades, infernum, or hell, it doesn’t matter. That’s where he went, and the New Testament says so, not only in places like the Acts passage we quoted, but in places like this:
"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark" (1 Peter 3:18-20a).
"For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God" (1 Peter 4:6).