My RNS colleague Dan Burke looks at the interesting history of the creedal formulation that Christ "descended into hell," what it may mean, and some current efforts (Protestant-led) to edit it out:
Belief in the descent was widespread in the early church, said Martin Connell, a theology professor at St. Johns School of Theology-Seminary in Collegeville, Minn. But the Bible divulges little about the interlude between Jesus death and resurrection. Churches that teach he descended to the realm of the dead most often cite 1 Peter 3:18-20......Augustine, one of the chief architects of Christian theology, argued that Peters passage is more allegory than history. That is, Jesus spoke in spirit through Noah to the Hebrews, not directly to them in hell. But even Augustine said the question of whom, exactly, Jesus preached to after his death, disturbs me profoundly.The descent might not have become doctrine if not for a fourth century bishop named Rufinus, who added that Jesus went ad inferna - to hell - in his commentary on the Apostles' Creed. The phrase stuck, and was officially added to the influential creed centuries later.But changing conceptions of hell only complicated the questions. As layers of limbo and purgatory were added to the afterlife, theologians like Thomas Aquinas labored to understand which realm Jesus visited, and whom he saved......Wayne Grudem, a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, says the confusion and arguments could be ended by correcting the Apostles Creed once and for all and excising the line about the descent.The single argument in its favor seems to be that it has been around so long, Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, writes in his Systematic Theology, a popular textbook in evangelical colleges. But an old mistake is still a mistake."
I have always liked the image, or reality, of the belief, but the history and debate are interesting.