He descended into Hell
If you are going to wait for someone, one of the first things you will ask them is, “How long will you be?” If they call out, “I won’t be a moment”, or “I’m coming in half a tick”, you then know that you’ve probably got at least five minutes longer to wait! People have always been like that. Think of what has happened to the word ‘presently’. At one time ‘presently’ meant ‘at the present moment’, ‘now, at once’, but people who said they would do something ‘presently’ used to wait so long before doing it that the word has come to mean ‘soon’ or ‘later on’.
The word ‘Hell’
In the same way there is a word in the Creed which has changed its meaning from the time when the Prayer Book was first written, and that is the word ‘Hell’, where we say that Jesus “descended into Hell”. The word ‘Hell’ comes from an old English word meaning to ’hide’; so Hell was the hidden place or, as we say, the unseen world. That is to say, at one time it meant just the place where the souls of those who have died are.
Now, however, the word ‘Hell’ means the place of the wicked, the place where people go who do not love God and are not sorry for all the wrong they have done in this life. The Devil is there too.
But when we say that Jesus, after he had died on the Cross, descended into Hell we are using the word in its old meaning, that he went to the place of the dead or Paradise as the Jews called it. That is what Jesus himself said on the Cross, a short time before he died. “Truly I tell you”, he said to one of the thieves dying next to him, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (NRSV, Luke 23:43).
Why Jesus descended into Hell
You’ll notice that the Creed says ‘descended’ or ‘went down’. This is because people used to think of Paradise as being below and Heaven as being above.
From the evening then of Good Friday when he died, until early on Easter Day when he rose again, Jesus spent his time with the souls of the people who had died since the human race appeared on earth. Jesus came to this world in order to bring us one day to Heaven, if we love him enough to want to go with him, and so it was only fair that those people also should have the opportunity to see him and to hear him preach the Gospel.
We all have to decide some time or other whether we really want Jesus or not, and that is why he went at once to these souls who had been waiting so long for him to come (1 Peter 3:18-20).
There are three places, then, where the souls of those who have died can be: Hell, Paradise or Purgatory as we call it, and Heaven.