As we work our way through the Apostles' Creed at Redeemer Fellowship people have been eager to hear an explanation of the phrase, "He descended into hell." I'm not going into detail here on the blog concerning what I don't believe this means. Listen in on Sunday for more detail there. I will say that I do not believe his descent was to a spiritual place where the dead reside. For now, let me just say what I believe it actually does mean. To confess that Jesus "descended into hell" is to say, with Caspar Olevianus in his Exposition of the Apostles' Creed, that Jesus experienced the "lowest and most extreme degree of humiliation, by which He humbled Himself for us and, indeed, emptied Himself completely."
John Calvin deals with part of this humiliation in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. We lately quoted from the Prophet, that the “chastisement of our peace was laid upon him” that he “was bruised for our iniquities” that he “bore our infirmities;” expressions which intimate, that, like a sponsor and surety for the guilty, and, as it were, subjected to condemnation, he undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted from them, the only exception being, that the pains of death could not hold him. Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God.
How can Jesus' temporary expierience on the cross satisfy God's wrath against sin that would result in eternal damnation of the sinner? Olevainus says,
Although in His suffering Christ experienced this anguish of hell only for a time, nevertheless this humiliation of the Son of God in that extreme anguish that lasted only for a time is equivalent to the eternal pains that we deserved by sinning against the eternal God. For that person who in his human nature humbled Himself to the extent of experiencing the anguish of hell is eternal God.
But Olevianus goes farther, arguing that Christ's "descent" was more than his anguish on the cross, but includes even his burial. "The last meaning of hell is that condition of burial, namely, while those who have been buried lie oppressed and, as it were, swallowed up and overcome by death. That is why David says, 'Who will acknowledge Thee in the grave?'"
...[So] what is meant by his descent into hell is not only the pains of death but also his utter disgrace-- the seeming victory of those pains-- while he was held down in the grave until the third day, lying as it were, under the oppression of death (Isa. 53:8).
What this means is that Jesus was truly humbled, forsaken, and cursed so that we could be lifted up, received and blessed in him. Jesus' substitution was full and complete taking on all that we have earned of God's judgment and giving all that is needed for peace with God now and forever. Christ's humiliation leads us to rejoice in God's love and sacrifice, while hating sin and mourning its consequences.