This question came up yesterday at the cgroup leaders luncheon and I’ve been asked several times about it since. I thought this post from a couple of years ago (with some slight modifications) might help:
Two weeks ago we read the Apostles Creed together. This ancient creed declares that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell”. I had at least one person ask my about my views on this, the phrase “He descended into hell”, so I thought a post might help.
Right up front, let me tell you that I do not believe that Jesus literally descended into hell after his death. Nor do I believe the Bible supports this view.
The actual phrase “descended into hell” did not appear in any form of the creed until 390AD, and then only in a copy made by Rufinus (and not the one he preserved as official). Even then, Rufinus, it seems, did not believe that Jesus descended into hell like we use the phrase, but into the grave (the word Hades can mean hell or grave). It did not again appear in a copy of the creed until 650AD.
Historically, most Protestant Christians have rejected the idea that Jesus descended literally into hell (Lutherans believe he did to boast about his defeat of Satan and the ungodly, and more recently dispensationalists have taught that Jesus descended into hell to lead OT saints to freedom). Most have chosen to interpret this dubious phrase in one of two ways. Some follow Rufinus and believe it to mean that he was placed in the grave, emphasizing that he was truly dead. Others follow Calvin and believe that it refers to the period of time when Jesus suffered God’s wrath and separation from Him on the cross. This is the view of Calvin, the view expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Larger Catechism and other reformed doctrinal confessions.
I know some where wondering where I stood on this, and I tend to follow Calvin (surprise, surprise) – believing that it refers to that period when Jesus was suffering not just physically, but suffering spiritual separation from the love of God as he was made sin for us. Hope this helps.