Throughout the history of the church, numerous questions have been raised over the statement in the Apostles’ Creed affirming the descent of Christ into hell, and some churches choose to omit these words in their liturgical observances. During the Reformation era, however, the vast majority of Christians continued to affirm this traditional teaching of the church, though it was understood by scholars in a number of ways. While some understood descent literally, suggesting Christ physically descended into the locale of a hell, others suggested descent was a synonym for burial, others a metaphor for his sufferings, and still others suggested that descent referred to his acceptance of the curse of death. Lutheran theologian Nikolaus Selnecker (1530-1592), in commenting on Psalm 16:10, exemplifies the literalist position, arguing that Christ’s physical descent into hell is a doctrine drawn directly from the pages of Scripture.
In these words the article of the Lord Christ’s descent into hell is based. This article has been disputed by many who say that the ancients did not have this little phrase—“descended into hell”—in their symbol or in their Creed. Such errors should be diligently refuted with God’s Word. For we believe and confess truthfully that he descended into hell and released all Christians captive to the devil, and removed all the devil’s power so that he can no longer harm us. For us he went below, so that we would not enter hell and remain there forever.
So, the words of this psalm are clear: “You will not leave my soul in hell.” For from this it follows undeniably that the Lord descended into hell, as also Psalm 30 says: “Lord, you have led my soul out of hell.” And Psalm 86: “Your goodness is great over me, and you have saved my soul from the depths of hell.” So also Saint Paul says in Ephesians 4 “that Christ ascended, what is this other than that earlier he descended into the lower regions of the earth?” Therefore it is a harmful error that the Papists pretend that this article of faith—“descended into hell”—has no basis in Scripture but that it is merely a tradition of the church. And with this they agree who say that the word Sheol, “hell,” in Scripture means nothing other than the grave. As a result of this clever trick the articles of faith will be weakened and in the end not one will be affirmed. . . . What would we be able to say about eternal damnation? And many other horrid errors would follow if the word Sheol should mean a grave every time in Scripture.
Psalms 1-72, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, OT vol. 7, pp. 125-26.