“He descended into Hell”

There is one article of the Creed that is so unpopular it has no feast of its own. “He descended into Hell” is somewhat mistranslated to begin with, since “ad inferos” is more like the dim Sheol of the Hebrew Bible, a limbo rather than Hell (the “limbo of the Patriarchs”). The Catechism gives a remarkably circumstantial account, perhaps too circumstantial and in need of some more aggiornamento and demytholgoization:

632 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.

633 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: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” 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.

634 “The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. 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, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying 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.” Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

Colm Tóibín’s harrowing memoir of undergoing chemotheraapy offers a more existential glimpse of what descending into Hell feels like. There are episodes of acute pain, but most of all a blotting out of the self. “There was no inner self to examine or get in touch with. There was a surface self and all it could do was stare straight ahead.”

In such a state the only prayer possible would be psalm-texts registering this hollowing out of the soul: “I am a worm and no man” (Ps 22:6). “I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me” (Ps 69:2).
To suffer with Christ would mean then to share the complete blankness of his sojourn among the dead.

The scenario that the Catechism tries to restore was a vivid one to the 14th century poet William Langland, who celebrates the Harrowing of Hell:

Again the light bade unlock · and Lucifer answered,
`What lord art thou?’ quoth Lucifer · `quis est iste ?’
`Rex gloriae’ · the light soon said,
`And lord of might and of main · and all manner of virtues;
Dukes of this dim place · anon undo these gates.
That Christ may come in · the king’s son of heaven.’
And with that breath Hell broke · and Belial’s bars,
Inspite of wight or ward · wide open the gates.
Patriarchs and prophets · populus in tenebris,
Sang Saint John’s song · `ecce agnus Dei.’
Lucifer might not look so light him blinded;
And those that our Lord loved · into his light he took,
And said to Satan, `lo! here · my soul to amend
For all sinful souls · to save those that be worthy.
Mine they be and of me · I may the better them claim.
Although reason record · and right of myself,
That if they eat the apple · all should die,
I promised them not here · Hell for ever.
For the deed that they did · thy deceit it made;
With guile thou them got · against all reason.
For in my palace, paradise · in person of an adder,
Falsely thou fetchest thence · thing that I loved.
Thus like a lizard · with a lady’s visage,
Like a thief thou me robbest · the old law granteth,
That beguilers be beguiled · and that is good reason.


After sharp showers,’ quoth Peace · `most glorious is the sun;
Is no weather warmer · than after watery clouds.
Nor no love dearer · nor dearer friends,
Than after war and woe · when Love and Peace be masters.
Was never war in this world · nor wickedness so keen,
That Love, if he pleased · could not bring to laughter,
And Peace through patience · all perils stopped.’

“I could never deny the resurrection,” some preacher said, “because I have observed it so often.” There are patterns of resurrection all around us: the revivals of nature, restoration to health after illness, the reconciliation of enmities and the revival of love. The Lord raises up those who call on Him, in many desperate situations in this life. These might be seen as practice runs for the ultimate triumph of life, the resurrection of the dead, when “what is sown a physical body is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44).

All living beings flee death with instinctive dread, as we see when we try to crush a beetle. But the Christian finds a grace in the path to death; God is at work here as in everything else. “Death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:12). Paul’s sufferings and weakness were a grace to all around him. Thérèse de Lisieux’s fearful agonies of body and mind before her death at age 26 did not prevent her from being a light to the entire Church, and from teaching us that “All is grace.”

“Some deadly thing has fastened upon him; he will not rise again from the place where he lies” (Ps 41:8). Do we just descend into nothingness, savoring our extinction to the music of Samuel Beckett? Better to place ourselves in the hands of God, the Heavenly Physician, confident that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He has taken our case in hand. Then the agony becomes marked with the sign of faith; it becomes an experience of dying with Christ. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his… If we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Rom 6:5-10).

At the heart of our faith lies the death of Christ, which is not a mere sudden event of long ago but a vast space that contains all human experience of suffering and death, guilt and despair. Descending into that chasm in meditation, we find that it is a gracious place, throbbing with the promise of resurrection. If the Gospel provides a medicine for every experience of life, it does not fail either at the last; rather it comes into its full force then and reveals itself as the power of the Resurrection.

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One Comment

  1. Pat Rogers says:

    Thank you Joe for that inspiring reflection on the meaning of the passion. I am reading it while out on the island of Tory off Donegal where I’m supplying the holy week and Easter ceremonies in Irish. What a pleasure to read your reflections from Japan in this far distant Island.

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