I think the Apostles' Creed is wrong when it speaks of Jesus descending into hell. The relevant part of the Creed says: "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven." Now I am not suggest the Church got something wrong in saying Jesus descended into hell, but rather we did.
The problem is the English language, particularly the modern use of the term "hell." In English, when someone speaks of "hell" it refers to the place where the damned souls go and suffer an eternal fiery torment. So when 99% of people read or recite the Creed which says Jesus descended into hell, they end up thinking all the wrong things. This is very bad, and I almost wonder how much spiritual harm it has caused.
The reality is, Jesus "descending into hell" has nothing to do with the "Hell of the Damned" (i.e. hellfire). The term "hell" derives from the Greek term "Hades," which was always understood broadly as the spiritual realm under the earth where all the dead souls go. It wasn't Heaven nor was it the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:14-15). So when the Apostles' Creed says Jesus descended into hell, more accurately it is saying Jesus descended into Hades.
A chief proof text of this is found in Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus tells of the historical account of The Rich Man and Lazarus. Some say this was really a parable, but nothing in the text suggests this; and either way that's irrelevant, since Jesus would be speaking of true matters either way. The key verses are these:
22 The time came when the beggar [Lazarus] died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
This passage explicitly shows that in Hades there was roughly an 'upper region' of the Old Testament Saints, and a 'lower region' of Old Testament lost souls (or possibly Purgatory). It is to Abraham's Bosom mentioned here that Jesus descended, not to the lower half of Hades. This is what Jesus meant when he said to the Good Thief, St Dismas, which Jesus told on Good Friday, "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). In other words, St Dismas was going to Abraham's Bosom and was going to meet Jesus there. This "Paradise" was not Heaven, for Jesus had not yet Ascended.
The fact that Jesus had not yet Ascended is another important clue to understanding His descent into Hades. Recall the order of events the Creed gives: He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven. The text explicitly says Jesus had already died and was buried before he descended! This clearly shows that the descent had nothing to do with Jesus' suffering, crucifixion and death. It took place after these things. And on the other end, it says Jesus rose from the dead, and then ascended into heaven. So this descent into Hades took place on Holy Saturday, after his death and burial but prior to His resurrection.
Tradition has understood texts like 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6 as Jesus rescuing the Old Testament Saints from Hades, and I see this as the best interpretation also. Another amazing passage to consider is Ephesians 4:7-10, which says:
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it [Psalm 68:18] says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people."
9 What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
The Church Fathers have read this "taking captives" as rescuing the captive Saints in Hades, and this descending is understood to be descending into Hades, making way for the Ascension.
Here are some other good Biblical texts to consider in this matter. In Acts 2:25-31, in which David made a prophecy about Jesus in Psalm 16, Peter preaches to the crowds about the part of the Psalm that says the Messiah would "not remain in Hades, nor would His body see decay," showing Jesus was in Hades. And Paul rejoices in 1 Corinthians 15:55 by cheering, "Where is your sting, O Death? Where is your victory, O Hades?" Clearly, Paul understood the distinction between death and Hades. And with this Victory, Jesus can say "I hold the keys of Death and Hades" (Rev 1:18), both of which were sad realities of life that God was going to one day get rid of (Rev 20:14). This puts a whole new light on Jesus' promise to Peter that "the gates of Hades will not prevail" against His Church!
Most people think Holy Saturday is some boring waiting period for Sunday, like it is really no big deal, but Holy Saturday is really glorious news! It means Holy Saturday was a gloriously triumphant day, which is why the Latin and (especially) Eastern Fathers have always saw this as a high point of Jesus' ministry. This has been traditionally called, in English, The Harrowing of Hell, meaning the Emptying or Robbing of Hades of it's captives, specifically all the Old Testament Saints stretching back to our first parents, Adam and Eve (who themselves were likely saved). So Jesus descended as a military hero, trampling on death, and proclaiming Victory on Holy Saturday. Sadly, most people are unaware about this glorious news, and the Latin liturgy doesn't do a good job of bringing this point out on the Easter Vigil.
Unfortunately, there are some blasphemous and heretical views of this matter, particularly the Protestant idea of Penal Substituion, which teaches that Jesus suffered hellfire in our place. They teach this because their view of Justification by Faith Alone requires it. Protestant "Reformer" John Calvin was so desperate to find proof that God the Father dumped His Wrath on Jesus that Calvin said the Apostles' Creed provided the best proof available! And yet the above article shows just how wrong Calvin was, both grammatically and Biblically!
Thankfully, there are many Catholic bloggers speaking up about this matter, notably Taylor Marshall's excellent blog (Here) and Joe Heshmeyer's excellent blog (Here).
I propose that the Catholic Church in English-speaking countries throw out the term "hell" and replace it with "Hades," since this will more accurately convey what is being taught and it will inevitably cause people to inquire and learn about what's the big deal about Hades. Help Spread the word!