Holy Saturday is the one day, and the last in the Easter Triduum, that is least understood by Protestants. Growing up in a non-liturgical background I paid some attention to Good Friday, and a lot more to Easter Sunday, but Saturday seemed like a big hole in the whole week, a hole that was left unfilled until Sunday morning. That is no longer the case for me once I began to understand and study the occasion of Holy Saturday about ten years ago.
Holy Saturday commemorates Jesus’ burial, which of course is specifically mentioned in the creed as a part of the mystery of our salvation. This is also the day where the phrase “he descended into hell” is mentioned. The only liturgical service in Catholicism is the liturgy of the hours, though from the fifth century on daytime masses have been held. The Easter Vigil, as this day developed over time, became the evening service which prepared the church for the Resurrection day, the celebration of Easter.
The church has commonly remembered these three days in association with the Passover. The reason for this should be obvious. The events themselves took place during Passover and Passover themes entered into Christian interpretation very early in the church. The New Testament itself speaks of Jesus as the Paschal lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7 (cf. John 1:29; 19:36). Jesus is sacrificed as the lamb of God for the sins of the world. This is why Passover readings will often be heard on this day in the evening service.
But what about the phrase “he descended into hell” in the creed? D. Bruce Lockerbie, an evangelical scholar, writes in his book The Apostles Creed: Do You Really Believe It? (1977):
The . . . clause . . . "He descended into hell," is the most controversial in the Apostle's Creed. Indeed, some denominations consider it optional or refuse to include it at all. The problem with this phrase begins with what it connotes. To some, the descent into hell represents the physical agony of death upon the Cross. It was hellish in its pain. To others, the word hell means Hades or Sheol, the collective abode of the dead, divided into Paradise or Abraham's Bosom—the state of God-fearing souls—and Gehenna, the state of ungodly souls. Thus the descent into hell may suggest that the Son of God carried the sins of the world to hell; or the Son of God carried Good News of deliverance to the godly dead such as Lazarus the beggar and the repentant thief. A third-century Syrian Creed speaks of Jesus, "who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and departed in peace, in order to preach to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints concerning the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead."
Still others believe that the descent into hell account for the problem of God's justice by providing an opportunity for all mankind–in eternity as well as in time–to hear the message of redemption from the Word Himself. But whatever interpretation one accepts, the scriptural passages upon which this teaching is based must be studied closely. Some of the standard texts are Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6.
I agree with Lockerbie’s overall summary of the different ways this phrase can be understood. I actually take the same view of this ancient phrase that the great Reformer John Calvin did when he concluded that Christ’s descent into hell consisted of his redemptive agony on the cross. This view has been debated and defended and I commend it to you as worthy of faith and as the correct meaning of the creed itself. If you do an online search of the phrase “descended into hell (creed)” you will find a myriad of helpful articles and a load of academic background and debate. I have concluded that it is right to not only say this in the creed but also to understand it as very important. It is right, then, to directly associate this statement with Holy Saturday itself.