Whenever I recite the Apostle’s Creed in a congregation, I tend to hold my breath to see how the person who typed in the PowerPoint will handle the “I believe in . . . the holy catholic church.” Too many times it is mistakenly capitalized and I cringe. And it is obvious why the mistake is so often made. The term “catholic” in our day has come to denote a denomination rather than it's true meaning describing the universal nature of the church of Jesus Christ.
I have to admit that I have often wondered exactly what the creed means when we say that Jesus, “descended into hell.” And I’m guessing I am not alone. That’s why I included a piece by J. I. Packer in the collection of writing on the cross and resurrection, Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross. Packer helps us understand.
The English is misleading, for "hell" has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed. Originally, "hell" meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol. That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, "thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades" (so RSV: AV has "hell"), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27–31). But since the seventeenth century, "hell" has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name isGehenna.
What the Creed means, however, is that Jesus entered, not Gehenna, but Hades—that is, that he really died, and that it was from a genuine death, not a simulated one, that he rose.
Packer also explains why this is significant for us:
What makes Jesus’ entry into Hades important for us is . . . simply the fact that now we can face death knowing that when it comes we shall not find ourselves alone. He has been there before us, and he will see us through.