Did Jesus actually "descend to hell" before He rose from the dead, as the Apostles' Creed says? Pastor Matt Chandler of The Village Church in Texas tackled this question in a sermon, taking forward his 12-week series on the statement of faith.
"We're not really preaching the creed; we're preaching the Bible," Pastor Chandler clarified in the beginning of his recent sermon, titled "He Descended to Hell, The Third Day He Rose Again from the Dead," part of a series on the Apostles' Creed, which finds its genesis in the Apostles' teachings.
When believers read the creed publicly, they reject "popular stories of our day," the pastor explained. "We're saying we don't agree with these popular narratives, these ways the world is trying to disciple us and shape us and mold us."
As Christians, we reject postmodernism, he added. "We do not believe that truth is relative, that your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth. We believe there is a truth for all men everywhere across all time."
We also reject emotionalism, Chandler said. "We would reject the idea that our emotions tell us what is true."
Talking about the phrase "descended into hell," the pastor said it was added in the fifth century and wasn't read much until the sixth or seventh century. "Even to this day, there are large swaths of evangelicals who read the creed but leave out 'descended into hell' because we don't believe He actually went to the place of hell and did that. Right? The Bible certainly doesn't teach that."
Chandler then read Matthew 27, which describes Jesus' crucifixion.
"What we know to be true in the Scriptures is that on the cross of Christ, Jesus is absorbing all of the sins of all of those who would believe upon the name of Jesus throughout history," the megachurch pastor told the crowd.
"There is a type of turning the back of the Father on the Son for the first time ever," he said. "The only place in the Scriptures we see Jesus not call God 'Father' is in this text when he says, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' The agony of separation from the Father settles into the Son, and for the first time ever, he feels what we're not supposed to feel, separation from God."
That's the hell Christ experiences, Chandler explained. "This metaphorical descending into hell isn't that Jesus goes to an actual place of hell but that Jesus experiences in this moment in a very mysterious way the presence of God to bless, and He feels for the first time the presence of God to judge."
The phrase "descended into hell" is important because it helps us feel the weight of our sinfulness, he added.
About the Resurrection of Christ, Chandler stressed that it was a bodily, physical resurrection. "He died. He went in the ground, and He came back."
Referring to Acts 1:8, the pastor said it was His physical body that ascended. Similarly, according to 1 Thessalonians, it is His physical body that will return, he added. "He is alive. He was alive. He is alive. He'll be alive in a resurrected body that does not perish, does not get weak, cannot die. He physically rose from the grave."
As Christians, we experience a spiritual resurrection in this life, the pastor told the congregation. "We are dead in our trespasses and sins, and we are made alive in the Resurrection of Christ. We were dead, and now we're not. That means we are no longer slaves to sin."
Chandler added: "Not only though will we have a spiritual resurrection that is possible now, is a reality for those who are in Christ now and is an invitation to those who would come to Jesus Christ, but then on top of that, there will be a physical resurrection from the dead."