Q: I’ve known the creeds by heart since childhood, but what does it mean when we say that Jesus “descended to the dead,” or even “descended into hell”? And then didn’t rise for three days? I want to understand all of this better. What was happening during that time?
A: Great question. First, the easy part is explain the whole “three days” thing. If Jesus died on Friday, and Easter is Sunday, isn’t that just two days? You have to keep in mind how the Jews mark time. The new day begins when the sun goes down (not when the clock strikes midnight). So, if Friday was the first day, Friday night started day two – and Saturday night started day three. That’s why we celebrate Easter first at the Great Vigil Saturday evening – sort of like New Year’s Eve when we can’t wait one more minute to celebrate.
The “descended to the dead,” or “defended into hell” line is a bit tricker. And actually, not many people know this, but this line appears ONLY in the Apostle’s Creed. Go ahead – check out the Nicene Creed, it’s not there. The Apostle’s Creed is the oldest of the three “Ecumenical Creeds” (Nicene and Athanasian being the others). Actually, it’s not really a Creed in the strictest sense. The Apostle’s Creed has it’s roots as the profession of faith used in baptism. Scripturally, there is only one reference that approximates what is in the creed – a line in 1 Peter in which Jesus is said to have made a “proclamation to the saints in prison.” Though, that itself is ambiguous. Many people take this to mean that Jesus appeared to those who died before his birth to proclaim the Gospel and grant them salvation.
Others in the Tradition have said that Jesus, after his death, went to hell to battle it out with the devil. Though there is not much Scriptural support for this Tradition, I rather like it. The idea of Christ descending to hell (the worst place imaginable), or defending to “the dead,” to rescue those who have died before him, is pretty powerful. It means that Jesus stops at nothing to save us, even if it means a dangerous “descent” so that we might “ascend.”