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Why Did Jesus Descend into Hell?

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By Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC (Nov 2, 2018)
Let it be known: There's no such thing as a stupid question.

Take for instance the one recently posed to me at a parish mission. During a break, a woman approached me and, rather sheepishly, said, "Father, every Sunday at Mass we pray the Creed, and after all these years I have to admit that I have no idea what we mean when we speak of Jesus descending into hell. Why did Jesus descend into hell?"

She had no reason for embarrassment. It's a great question. And with this issue of the newsletter, I hereby arm you with the answer because — who knows? — maybe you, too, recite the Creed with an image in your mind of Jesus hanging out with Lucifer for three days.

That's not what He was up to, by the way.

When we say Jesus "descended into hell" — an event that theologians call the "harrowing of hell" — we first must understand that the word "hell," in this case, is a loose translation of Hebrew and Greek terms that pre-date Christ and refer in general to the realm of the dead. The Hebrews called this realm Sheol. The Greeks called it Hades.

(By the way, if you really want to impress friends and family, tell them that our English word "hell" comes from a Germanic name for the place of the dead in Teutonic mythology.)

In the strictest sense of the word, hell is the abode of the dead where there is an absence of the Beatific Vision. While to our modern ears "hell" has come to represent the fiery realm of the damned, in Scripture — and in the Creed — the "hell" in question held both the righteous and evil "while they await the redeemer" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 633).

Saint Thomas Aquinas and other Church scholars conceptualized this realm of the dead by dividing it into four states or abodes:

1. Limbo of the Children, the abode for unbaptized children under the age of reason, a place of happiness (note, however, Limbo of the Children is not an official Church teaching);
2. Limbo of the Fathers, also known as the bosom of Abraham (this is the abode of the Old Testament faith, which Christ emptied by His redemption);
3. Purgatory (the abode of those
being purified for Heaven); and
4. Gehenna (the abode of the eternally damned, who have rejected God in this life and have committed mortal sins without repentance — what we in English now call "hell").

So what about Christ's descent? As you know, and as the Catechism clarifies in passage 633, the dead do not all share identical fates. Our Lord attested to this "realm of the dead" understanding of hell in His Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (see Lk 16:19-31). Upon their death, the rich man goes to a place of eternal suffering while Lazarus, the poor man, goes to a place most Jews would identify as the bosom of Abraham, or Limbo of the Fathers, a quiet place of rest for the souls of those who have died in God's grace — but it's not Heaven.

Remember, Christ is telling the story, so He hasn't yet died and risen from the dead, so it would be impossible for Lazarus and Abraham to be in Heaven itself because Christ had not yet opened the gates of Heaven by His redemptive act. The sin of Adam and Eve had closed the gates of Heaven. Holy souls such as Adam, Eve, Abraham, Moses, etc., awaited the Redeemer in this realm of the dead. It's not until Christ reconciles us to the Father by His redemptive act on the Cross that He can then rise from the dead and receive authority from the Father to reopen the gates of Heaven for us and all the redeemed.

So when we say in the Creed that Christ descended into hell, we acknowledge that He went to free the just who had died before Him. As the Catechism teaches, "Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. ... [T]he descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission ..." (633-634).

In closing, let me point you to an ancient homily of the early Church for Holy Saturday that captures this event. As quoted in the Catechism (635), the homily goes thusly:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. ... He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him — He who is both their God and the son of Eve. ... "I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. ... I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead."

Father Dan Cambra, MIC, is the spiritual director of the Marian Fathers' Holy Souls Sodality.

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Complete and biblically-documented
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(1) FIRST STATION – Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
(2) SECOND STATION – Jesus is abandoned by Peter and the Apostles.
(3) THIRD STATION – Jesus is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and Pilate.
(4) FOURTH STATION – Jesus is scourged.
(5) FIFTH STATION – Jesus takes up His Cross.
(6) SIXTH STATION – Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene.
(7) SEVENTH STATION – Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
(8) EIGHTH STATION – Jesus is nailed to the Cross.
(9) NINTH STATION – Jesus is mocked on the Cross.
(10) TENTH STATION – Jesus promises the Paradise to the Good Thief.
(11) ELEVENTH STATION – Jesus speaks from the the cross to His Mother and the Apostle John.
(12) TWELFTH STATION – Jesus dies on the Cross.
(13) THIRTEENTH STATION – Jesus’ side is pierced with a lance.
(14) FOURTEENTH STATION – Jesus is buried.
(15) FIFTEENTH STATION – Jesus descends to the dead and liberates the Faithful.
“In the tomb with the body and in hell with the soul, as God, in paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit, wast Thou, o boundless Christ, filling all things!”
[Ephesians 4:9, 1 Peter 3:19; the Byzantine Liturgy].
The original Italian edition Via crucis – Completo e biblicamente documentato is based on the 15 stations of the Way of the Cross in Marija Bistrica, Croatia, on the Via Crucis – Venerdì Santo 1991, 1994, 1995, of Pope John Paul II, VATICAN.VA, and on the Byzantine Liturgy, SLAVXRIST.ORG; blessed by Bishop Virgilio Pante, I.M.C., Maralal, Kenya; published by Consolata Missionaries 6.12.2006. English edition: Consolata Missionaries, 2671 Islington Ave., Toronto, ON M9V 2X6 Canada CONSOLATA.CA 6.1.2007.

Hans - Feb 24, 2019

If the holy before Christ were in Abraham’s bosom rather than heaven, then who were the angels that appeared prior?

- Feb 8, 2019

The Bible says that God neither sleeps nor slumbers so anything that suggests such a thing how can it be accurate? God knows all not only your outward appearance but even your heart.

Beatrice - Nov 7, 2018

I don't understand the comment in the story of the Lord going in search of Adam and Eve saying to Eve I am your son. after they sinned why would Eve be called His Mother? Wouldn't they be His brother and sister? I know they were man-kinds first parents but that didn't make sense to me. so what did I miss?