“He descended into hell.”
What a cryptic phrase from the Apostles Creed! What do we mean when we say these words at Mass every Sunday, or when we begin the Rosary? Did Jesus really go to hell? Or, was it Sheol? Or Hades? Or the place of the just who could not enter heaven until Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross in atonement for our sins? Is there still the possibility of eternal damnation, or is “hell” merely an antiquated concept that the Church has outgrown because of Vatican II? For answers let us consider The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 631 to 635.
The phrase, “He descended into hell,” must be considered in tandem with what immediately follows: “On the third day He rose again.” As the Catechism states, “The Apostle’s Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth.” [CCC631] Here we see the “both/and” dichotomy of the Catholic faith: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. An easy trap to fall into is to focus only on one over the other. One only has to see latest news stories coming out of Egypt or Syria to see that man is capable of great evil, but is his nature totally depraved? Good Friday without Easter Sunday? Or the opposite end of the spectrum which some have termed “Christianity Lite” for those whose comfortable lives give them the promise of heaven without the reality of hell, or forgiveness without repentance? The truth lies between the two extremes. All of humanity was forever changed because “on the third day He rose again,” but there is no Resurrection without a Crucifixion, and our willful embrace or rejection of this metaphysical reality effects how we live (or should be living).
A Catholic’s affirmation that Jesus was “raised from the dead presupposes that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his Resurrection.” [CCC632] That is, “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.” But, by descending to the dead, did Jesus destroy the hell of eternal damnation? Oh, that the demands of faith could be that easy! No, Jesus descended to the dead “to free the just who had gone before him.” [CCC633]. “He descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” [CCC632]. So where is the “there?”
We shouldn’t think of hell as a place, but as a state of the soul in relation to God. Biblical terms of “Sheol” and “Hades” are synonymous – the former is in Hebrew, and the latter in Greek. Both are the “abode of the dead,” but this description still evokes the idea of a place. Matters of the soul are difficult to envision, so we use imagery to help grasp metaphysical realities. The souls in the “abode of the dead” are “deprived of the vision of God,” and this is true for the evil or righteous alike. Jesus went for the holy souls who awaited their Savior “in Abraham’s bosom,” from the parable of the poor man Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31]. Remember, in this parable, reference is made to the resurrection of the dead. As the parable teaches: belief must begin with Moses and the Prophets, because “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:31].
Believers and unbelievers alike can agree that Jesus was killed. But those who believe that Jesus is God must then logically conclude that God died on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. But, no! God cannot die! One might then conclude incorrectly that “Jesus cannot be God because God cannot die.” Or another false belief will arise: that Jesus never really died, but was taken down from the cross before it was too late.
How do we solve this riddle that Jesus Christ is God, and that “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried?” Again, from the Catechism: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead” to “open heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” [CCC635]
Our discussion has now brought us into the metaphysical realm where images to not work. What is the soul? What makes a person divine? These questions are beyond the scope of this article. Sufficient for now must be the simple faith and belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man. He is a divine person who has a human soul. The two are united and inseparable, and because God does not die, for He is Life Itself, after the Crucifixion, God descended into hell to release all who were waiting for the messianic promises of the Old Testament to be fulfilled. Not even death could contain Him, so we can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55].
The Resurrection itself is too important an event in history to celebrate for one day only, which is why the Church celebrates the Octave of Easter, culminating with Divine Mercy Sunday. And, although Lent is forty days, Easter is fifty, culminating with Pentecost!
As we celebrate the most central mysteries of our faith during this holiest of liturgical seasons, let us all raise a glass to and be grateful for the unfathomable mercy of Jesus. And, for those in the Washington, DC area, please join us Sundays during the Easter Season to celebrate at the most aptly named place for such an occasion: The Hellbender Brewing Company.