Buried in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed is a profound mystery of the Christian faith, the affirmation that Christ ‘descended into hell.’
This clause explains where Christ in the three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection.
But this explanation raises a storm of questions: Did Jesus really go to hell? How can it be possible for God Incarnate to experience hell, the state of final separation from God? What did Jesus do there? Did He actually experience the everlasting fire that Scripture says is the lot of all those in hell?
Where Jesus went
Some Latin clarifies matters. In Latin, the word translated as hell in English is inferna. In the ancient world, this word had the generic meaning of underworld, not hell specifically. In the Vulgate it is used to translate a number of different Hebrew and Greek words from Scripture. Two Greek words are especially important here: hades and gehenna. Hades, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew sheol, is the biblical term for where righteous Israelites went who died before Christ. Gehenna, on the other hand, is the destination of the damned.
It is to hades—better known to Catholics as the Limbo of the Fathers—that Christ descended, Church tradition says. But, significantly, the power of His presence was nonetheless was felt in the farthest reaches of hell, according to Aquinas.
Why Jesus descended
1. Consequences of a True Human Death: Affirming that Christ descended to hell reinforces the Church’s belief that he died a true death, according to theologian Alyssa Pitstick (who has written an exhaustively in-depth analysis of the doctrine of the descent in light of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light in Darkness.) She points to a letter Pope Hormisdas issued to the Emperor Justin in 521 AD, in which the pope stresses the reality of Christ’s death as a central truth of the Incarnation: “Just as that one was buried, who will to be born man, just so He was who like the Father rose: suffering wounds and the savior of the wounded, one of the dead and the giver of life to the dead, descending into hell and not leaving the bosom of the Father.” This is why some creeds, other than the Apostle’s Creed, simply state that Christ was buried and rose again. Common to all creeds is the belief that Christ died a truly human death, Pitstick says.
2. Punishment for Sin: It was necessary for Christ, who bore the punishment for our sins, to do so completely, St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. That means being in hell, Aquinas writes: “The punishment for the sin of man was not alone death of the body, but there was also a punishment of the soul, since the soul had its share in sin; and it was punished by being deprived of the beatific vision; and as yet no atonement had been offered whereby this punishment would be taken away.”
3. Release of the Captives: Because of the Fall, the gates of heaven had remained closed, even to those who had lived righteous lives without mortal sin—men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David. These holy men and women were imprisoned in Limbo of the Fathers. Christ’s descent, then, has always been understood as necessary to release the righteous dead and bring them into heaven. One of the famous fresco in the Chora Church in modern-day Istanbul dramatically depicts Christ clothed in a bodily halo of light, clutching at the hands of Adam and Eve. Of course, one might still wonder why Christ had to descend to hell to release the captives. Couldn’t He have simply opened heaven to them? In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas explains that the merits of the Cross are extended to Christians through “something special.” For the living, that means the sacraments. For the dead, it is the descent.
4. Fight the Devil: Armed with the Cross, Christ went into the devil’s home territory to conquer him once and for all. “Now, a person is perfectly vanquished when he is not only overcome in conflict, but also when the assault is carried into his very home, and the seat of his kingdom is taken away from him,” Aquinas writes in his commentary on the creed. As St. John Chrysostom put it in his famous Paschal Homily: “He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!” Of course, the hell of the damned still exists, but only for those who deliberately choose to go there: on its own, it has no power over man any more.
5. Announce the Gospel: This is the reason given in 1 Peter 3, which tells us that Christ “preached to those spirits that were in prison.” But this wasn’t to convert the damned. Instead it was to “put them to shame for their unbelief,” according to the Summa Theologica.
6. Hope for Souls in Purgatory: Christ had a message for every region of hell it seems. For those in purgatory, it was good news, but Jesus did not actually take them out of purgatory. Instead, he gave those souls “detained” in purgatory “hope of attaining to glory,” Aquinas writes.
Lessons for the living
As incredible and important as the descent into the underworld was, what can we, who are living today, learn from it? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Hope: In all the various trials and tribulations we may bear, even when we find ourselves in the depths of sin and despair, the truth of the descent into hell insists that we nonetheless hold to a firm hope in Christ. Aquinas put it best: “No matter how much one is afflicted, one ought always hope in the assistance of God and have trust in Him. There is nothing so serious as to be in the underworld. If, therefore, Christ delivered those who were in the underworld, what great confidence ought every friend of God have that he will be delivered from all his troubles!”
Spiritual Consolation: Few, if any, Christians journey through this life without ever experience a sense of abandonment by God. The silence is deafening, the darkness is blinding. But the descent event should assure us that even then, Christ is there with us. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his Introduction to Christianity: “This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.”
Holy Fear: As much as it is a source of hope and comfort, the descent event should also instill in us a healthy measure of fear. “We have already seen that Christ suffered for sinners and descended into the underworld for them. However, He did not deliver all sinners, but only those who were free from mortal sin. He left there those who departed this life in mortal sin. Hence, anyone who descends into hell in mortal sin has no hope of deliverance,” Aquinas writes in his commentary. He recommends that the living should follow the example of Christ by descending into “hell by thinking of it” so that we “will not easily fall into hell at death.”
Inspiration to Love: “Christ descended into the underworld in order to deliver His own; and so we should go down there to rescue our own. They cannot help themselves,” Aquinas writes. Specifically, he is referring to the earthly assistance we can render to our friends and family in purgatory. Church Fathers like St. Augustine and St. Gregory have identified four specific means of doing this: Masses, prayers, almsgiving, and fasting.
Awe and Wonder: Ultimately, the descent into hell should renew our awe and wonder at what Christ achieved on the Cross. It also should deepen our awareness and appreciation of His love: even after the unimaginable suffering He endured on the Cross—which culminated in a cry of abandonment from God the Father—Christ did not immediately rush back to heaven, He did not shrink back from entering the place of ultimate spiritual desolation and isolation to personally rescue those who had died before His crucifixion.