The Apostles Creed mentions that “Jesus descended into Hell.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats this question (nn. 631-637). In short, Jesus (lid stiffer on the Cross and die, but through His death, lie conquered sin, death, and the devil, After His death, Jesus descended into the realm of the dead or Sheol, in the Jewish tradition, to open the gates of heaven to the souls of the just who waited there.
Sheol was the “place” where souls, whether evil or good, went while they awaited the Redeemer. The fate of those souls was not the same. For example, Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man, who was in torment in flames, and Lazarus, the poor man, who rested in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:19-30).
In the “bosom of Abraham” the souls of the just awaited the Redeemer. Wisdom (3:1-4) speaks of these souls: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them. They seemed in the view of the foolish to be dead, and their passing away was though an affliction, and their going forth utter destruction, hut they are at peace. For if before men, indeed they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality.” In hope, these souls awaited deliverance.
In his “Passover,” a passing over from death to life, from the depths of hell and death, Jesus made “life spring forth” (CCC 631). Jesus, like us in all things but sin, truly experienced death. Like all others who die, His soul descended into the real in of death, hut because He was the just One, the devil had no claim on Him whatsoever. Instead of being held captive, He descended as Savior and proclaimed the Good News even there. (CCC 632) As he began His earthly ministry in Galilee, Jesus stated that He had come to proclaim liberty to the captives (cf. Luke 4:18). Now among the dead, He continues His messianic mission.
Jesus did not descend into hell 10 deliver the damned, nor did 1-Ic destroy the hell of damnation which awaits the unrighteous; rather. He descended to bring freedom and deliverance to the just. No one should be surprised that Jesus went among the dead to preach the good news. Jesus himself said, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (john 5:25).
In dying and destroying death, Jesus also destroyed the Kingdom of the Evil One and destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. Surely he did not help angels, but rather, the descendants of Abraham” (Hebrews
2:14-16). Revelation (1:18) reminds us the Risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and the netherworld.” His descent among the dead brings the Good News of salvation to fulfillment inasmuch as it signifies that the redemptive work of Christ is extended to people of all times and places. Those who are saved are made sharers in the Redemption (CCC 634).
What makes this truth difficult to grasp in our noisy culture is that Jesus performed this action in silence- out of human sight. In his Introduction to Christianity Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “Thus the article about the Lord’s descent into hell reminds us that not only God’s speech hut also His silence is part of Christian Revelation. God is not only the comprehensible word that comes to us; He is also silent, inaccessible, uncomprehended
God is word, but this does riot entitle us to forget the truth of God’s abiding concealment. Only’ when we have experienced him as silence may we hope to hear His speech, too, which proceeds in silence. Christology reaches mat beyond the Cross, the moment when the divine love is tangible, into 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?”
Father Femandes is dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and the Athenaeum of Ohio. He is assistant professor of moral theology.