III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell.
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed that He went down into Hell.
IV. Of the Resurrection of Christ.
CHRIST did truly rise again from death, and took again His body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature, wherefore He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until He return to judge all men at the last day.
V. Of the Holy Ghost.
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.
One of the advantages of studying the ancient creeds and historic confessions is that we gain a sense for the biblical doctrines that are fundamental to Christianity. This does not mean that the creeds and confessions themselves are fundamental to Christianity. Rather, they reveal for us which teachings of the Scriptures have been clearly and consistently expounded and believed throughout the history of the church. They do not establish our faith for us, but they do help us to gain a sense of proportion when distinguishing true Christianity from false. To use the example of the Thirty-Nine Articles which we are considering here, the first five articles deal with the Trinity, a non-negotiable doctrine of biblical Christianity.
However, in Article 3 we run into one of those statements that is less than clear and certainly not universally accepted. There was disagreement concerning this article before it was adopted, and there is still disagreement today. The teaching that Christ "descended into hell" comes from later versions of the Apostles' Creed, and it appears that when it was first used it may have meant no more than that Christ descended into the grave (the Greek term hades can refer to the place of the dead). Historically, many churches which accept the Apostles' Creed do not teach that Christ went to the place of torment and final judgment. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism says,
Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell (Question 50).
Consequently, when many Christians confess that Christ descended into hell, they really mean no more than that he was truly in the realm of the dead prior to his bodily resurrection.
If this is what is meant by the phrases "he descended into hell" in the Apostles' Creed and "he went down into Hell" in the Thirty-Nine Articles, then no doubt this is a universal and fundamental teaching of Christianity. Christians must believe in the actual bodily death of Jesus Christ on the cross. If he did not truly die on the cross, then he could not have paid the penalty for our sins.
At the same time, the phrase "he descended into hell" itself seems to say more than that Christ truly died. Thus contemporary theologian Wayne Grudem argues that the phrase ought to be dropped from the Apostles' Creed ("He Did Not Descend into Hell").
No doubt debate on this language will continue, but at the very least it ought to make us realize once again that confessions must conform to the Scripture, and not vice-versa. The Bible is our final authority in all matters. Simply because an ancient tradition says that Christ "descended into hell" does not make it so. Personally, I am persuaded that there is no biblical evidence that Christ suffered in the abode of the damned. This would contradict the finality of his suffering on the cross when he cried, "It is finished." This would contradict his promise to the repentant thief that he would be with him in paradise. Christ truly died and was buried, but it is at the least misleading to say that he descended into hell.