In the back of my Bible, I have a copy of the Apostles’ Creed, and it contains the line “He descended into hell,” which I tend to recite. But there are leading evangelical figures who object to this line, contending that it has no biblical basis.
1. For example, in a sermon here, noted Reformed pastor and author John Piper says that there is no textual basis for believing Christ descended into hell, and finds no suport in the oft used Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20–so he does not recite it. However, to his credit he urges a self-study to see whether there are other foundations for it.
2. In his popular Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem also argues against “He descended into hell,” concluding thus: “My own judgment is that there would be all gain and no loss if it were dropped from the Creed once for all” (pp. 583-594). The reader will find three pages of a chart, tracing the gradual formation of the Apostles’ Creed from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 750. Grudem’s main points for dropping “He descended into hell” may be summed up thus: “It has no clear warrant from Scripture and indeed seems to be contradicted by some passages in Scripture. It has no claim to being ‘apostolic’ and no support (in the sense of a ‘descent into hell’) from the first six centuries of the church. It was not in the earliest versions of the Creed and was only included in it later because of an apparent misunderstanding about its meaning” (p. 594).
3. However, we find another Reformed thinker, Carl R. Trueman, contesting that “the creed’s offense at this point [“He descended into hell”] is based more on a surface reading of the words from a later context than upon their original intent. He goes on to say that “we should not abandon a clause in a creed simply because we do not understand it at first reading” (The Creedal Imperative, p. 90; see my review here).
After weighing the biblical and theological objections, and the historical perspective, particularly by Grudem, for the moment, I side with the wisdom of Trueman, noting a meaning which does not contradict the rest of Scripture.