Viewpoint: What Does it Mean to Say that Jesus “Descended Into Hell”?

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

When the third edition of the Roman Missal was put into use in the U.S. in Advent 2011, Catholics were given the option of occasionally reciting at Mass the Apostles’ Creed instead of the more familiar Nicene Creed.

In the Apostles’ Creed, it is said of Jesus that, after his death, “he descended into hell.” Since then, I have been asked many times by worshippers what this affirmation means. Surely, Jesus cannot have literally gone down to hell, the place of the Devil and the damned. And if he did so descend, what was the purpose: Surely the damned cannot be saved?

In the context of the Apostles’ Creed, hell does not mean what we understand by the word today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point as follows: “Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell”—Sheol– in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer (no. 633).

Jesus was not going into the place of the damned, “but to free the just who had gone before him” (ibid.). Jesus went into hell to preach the Gospel to the dead.  As the Catechism puts it, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places” (no. 634).

An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday (quoted in no. 635 of the Catechism) expresses powerfully the meaning of Jesus’ descent into hell. It reads in part: “The King . . . has raised up all those 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 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. . . . [Jesus says to Adam] ‘I am your God, who for your sake has become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’”

The Catechism situates Jesus’ descent into hell in a larger context: “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” (no. 632).

In early Christianity, then, hell had two meanings. It was, on the one hand, the place of the damned who had fundamentally rejected all that is good and just and condemned themselves to an eternity without God. On the other hand, it had a more neutral meaning as the place where the just who lived before Christ went to await salvation.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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13 comments

  1. Another dimension of this is that it teaches that Jesus had and retains a truly human nature, and did not merely appear to be human.

  2. Time to open up “Introduction to Christianity” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and turn to the salient portions that being on pg. 293.

    The points raised by Pope Emeritus Benedict are far to complex to bring to their entirety here, but are worthwhile rooting out and carefully reading.

    “Christianity reaches out beyond the Cross, the moment when the divine love is tangible, into the death, the silence and the eclipse of God. Can we wonder that the Church and the life of the individual are led again and again into this hour of silence, into the forgotten and almost discarded article, ‘Descended into hell’?”

    Worth looking up.

  3. In this context we shouldn’t fail to mention the gospel of Nicodemus, which so captured the imagination of the early Christians that it often took visible form in iconography depicting Jesus stretching out his hand to rescue Adam and Eve from the mouth of hell with the demons paralyzed in fear and trembling at Jesus’ power. It’s a great read and highly recommended.

  4. “The Harrowing of Hell” is a prominent theme in medieval literature and art. An internet search will show plentiful links.

  5. This is another area where the missal translators made things difficult by changing what is in the 1994 edition of the catechism as

    He descended to the dead

    to the older version

    He descended into hell

    In addition the distinction in the catechism between the “I believe” of the Apostles Creed and the “We believe” of the Nicene Creed was also ignored. In fact the first section of part 1 is headed “I believe we believe” which I suppose should now be headed “I believe – I believe”

    1. @Louie Macari:
      I disagree, neither translation is truly clearer than the other because the concept pretty much requires explanation. The advantage of the “Hell” translation is that it is more likely to prompt questions, thus leading people to know what it really means.

  6. Because of the influence of Buddhism, which has a far more comlex cosmology, Japanese has a rich collection of words for the after-life. Some years ago when the Bishop’s Conference revised the translation of the Apostles Creed they chose a rather word rare “陰府”, (yomi), which means the realm of the dead or looking to a western equivalent, Hades. The Apostles Creed is used more frequently that the Nicene Creed at Sunday Eucharists.
    Some objected to its use because of its Buddhist roots, but since it made people pause to think about its meaning, it serves its purpose well. There is another way of reading the two Chinese characters, but given the fact that Japanese is also rich with homophones, it was rejected since, without seeing the characters, the hearer could mishear(?) and suspect the speaker was referring to a part of the female anatomy.

  7. I can’t remember why, in Dante, Virgil and others who hadn’t heard of Christ in life were denied the possibility of ascending from their spot in the ante-room of Hell. I mean, the teaching above suggests that they could have accepted Christ when he descended into the realm of the dead.

    1. @jeff armbruster:
      There are three virtuous pagans who are not in the ante-room of the Inferno:

      1. Cato Uticensis (the Younger), who guards Purgatory: all more stunning because he committed suicide in Utica rather than submit to Julius Caesar.

      2 & 3: Emperor Tragan and Ripheus the Trojan, who abide in the circle of Jupiter in Paradise.

      If memory serves, they serve in the narrative as examples of how God’s mercy confounds mortal comprehension.

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