Older translations of the Apostles’ Creed say that Christ “was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell.”
I’ve met countless people who grew up confessing these words but were never taught what they mean. Some still wonder, “Did Christ really go to hell!? Was he punished for our sins?”
The reason for this confusion is simple: words change their meaning over time. The older meaning of the English word “hell” was “hidden or covered depth” and could be used in a generic sense to refer to the place where all dead souls go, also called Sheol or Hades. The second definition for “hell” in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary is “the place of the dead, or of souls after death; the lower regions, or the grave; called in Hebrew, sheol, and by the Greeks, hades.” People didn’t always hear “hell” and automatically think “the place of punishment for unrighteous souls.” That has changed. “Hell” now refers almost exclusively to a place of suffering for sin.
Thus the Methodist theologian William Burt Pope explains, “The Greek Ἅδης Hades (Psalm 15:10), answering to the Hebrew Sheol, signifies the Unseen State; which again corresponds with the English Hell, according to its simple original meaning of Covered or Hidden Depth, and without reference to punishment endured in it.”
There is no biblical evidence that Christ was punished in hell on Holy Saturday, and it is both disconcerting and theologically problematic to suggest that he did. The true doctrine of Christ’s descent is one that is full of hope and comfort: While Christ’s body rested in the grave, his human soul departed to the place of the dead, not to be punished for sin, but to proclaim his victory and, by virtue of his divinity, defeat death and Hades, that we may no longer fear to go where he has been (Acts 2:31, cf. Ps. 16:10; 139:8; Eph. 4:8–9, cf. Rom. 10:7; 1 Pet. 3:18–20, cf. Php. 2:10; Rev. 1:18).
Today, it’s perhaps better to translate the Apostles’ Creed as “he descended to the dead.” The best work on Christ’s descent in recent years bears this title: “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (Matthew Emerson). If you use the older translation, “he descended into hell,” it’s best to qualify its meaning.
For more on the doctrine of Christ’s descent and the meaning of Holy Saturday, see the article “He Descended to the Dead: Hope and Comfort on Holy Saturday.”