After mentioning a few historical facts of Jesus' life (his virgin birth, crucifixion, death, burial), the Creed suddenly takes on a different tone, moving to aspects of our faith that strictly speaking, are not historical in the normal sense of the word. After all, for most of us, except for whatever legacy we leave behind us, when we are buried, our human history comes to an end. Not so with Jesus; his story begins before Creation and continues through eternity. His human history has a beginning in the Virgin Birth, but it doesn't end with his death. The Creed continues with a somewhat controversial phrase: "He descended into hell." Controversial in that not every tradition recites this statement.
It's inclusion in the Creed has its origins in a couple of somewhat cryptic Scriptures: 1 Peter 3:13-21 and Ephesians 4:9. In the first, it says Jesus after his death "preached to the spirits in prison...who were disobedient in the days of Noah...," and the in the second, "He who ascended into heaven first descended into the depths of the earth." It is easy to misunderstand this. The term "hell" here isn't the place of damnation and torment which usually comes to mind. It simply means 'the place of the dead.' The significance of this short statement is in affirming the totality of Jesus' human experience; he not only died and was buried, but entered the place of the dead. But it is what Jesus did while there that is the focus of faith: "He preached to the spirits imprisoned there."
The catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: "The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was "raised from the dead" presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there." Those believers who died prior to the Resurrection had no first hand knowledge of Jesus or of the fullness of the salvation he procured through his death and resurrection. After all, according to Scripture, Jesus is the firstborn from among the dead, and it was his descent and proclamation of salvation to those there that enabled him to lead them to eternal life as we understand it.
This short sentence is the Creed's way of assuring us of the fullness of our salvation. As the old Gospel song puts it, "The love of God is greater far than pen or tongue can ever tell; It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell." I am grateful tonight that there is no place in all creation left untouched by Christ's redemption. And if it reaches to the lowest hell, it surely reaches me.