"He Descended into Hell"

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 11 January 1989, the Holy Father explained that the “hell” to which Christ descended was not the hell of eternal damnation, “but the abode of the dead which is sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek.” There He communicated to the just who had died before Him the salvation won for them on the Cross.

In the most recent reflections we have explained with the help of biblical texts, the article of the Apostles' Creed which says of Jesus: "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified...and was buried." It was not merely a case of narrating the history of the passion, but of penetrating the truth of faith contained in it and which we profess in the creed: human redemption effected by Christ with his sacrifice. We dwelt particularly on his death and on his words during the agony on the cross as recorded by the evangelists. These words help us to discover and understand more profoundly the spirit wherewith Jesus immolated himself for us.

That article of faith ends, as we have just noted, with the words: "...and was buried." It might appear a mere factual statement; on the contrary, it is a fact whose significance enters the wider sphere of the whole of Christology. Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh in order to assume the human condition and to be like us in everything except sin (cf. Heb 4:15). He truly became "one of us" (cf. GS 22), to be able to redeem us, thanks to the profound solidarity established with every member of the human family. In that condition of true man he experienced completely the lot of man, even to death, which is usually followed by burial, at least in the religious and cultural world in which Jesus lived. Christ's burial is therefore an object of our faith inasmuch as it reproposes for us his mystery as the Son of God who became man and ventured to the limit of human experience.

The following article which says: "He descended into hell," is linked in a certain way to these final words of the article on the passion and death of Christ. This article about the descent into hell reflects some texts of the New Testament which we shall see shortly. It is well to mention, however, that although in the time of the Arian controversies the same formula was found in the writings of those heretics, it was nevertheless introduced also into the so-called Creed of Aquileia, one of the professions of the Catholic faith then in use, which was drawn up at the end of the fourth century (cf. DS 16). It entered definitively into the teaching of the councils with the Fourth Lateran (1215) and the Second Council of Lyons in the profession of faith of Michael Paleologus (1274).

It should also be mentioned that the word "hell" does not mean the hell of eternal damnation, but the abode of the dead which is sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek (cf. Acts 2:31).

The formula is derived from numerous New Testament texts. The first is found in the Apostle Peter's discourse on Pentecost. Referring to Psalm 16 to confirm the announcement of Christ's resurrection which it contains, Peter stated that the prophet David "foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption" (Acts 2:31). The Apostle Paul's question in the Letter to the Romans has a similar meaning: "'Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)" (Rom 10:7).

Also in the Letter to the Ephesians there is a text which asks a significant question in reference to a verse of Psalm 68: "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men" (Ps 68:19). "In saying, 'he ascended,' what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things" (Eph 4:8-10). In this way Paul seems to link Christ's "descent" into the abyss (among the dead, of which he speaks in the Letter to the Romans), with his ascension to the Father, which begins the eschatological "fulfillment" of all things in God.

In line with this are the words placed in Christ's mouth: "I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades" (Rev 1:17-18).

As is evident from the texts quoted, the article of the Apostles' Creed: "He descended into hell," is based on the New Testament statements on the descent of Christ, after his death on the cross, into the "region of death," into the "abode of the dead," which in Old Testament language was called the "abyss." If the Letter to the Ephesians speaks of "the lower parts of the earth," it is because the earth receives the human body after death, and so it received also the body of Christ who expired on Calvary, as described by the evangelists (cf. Mt 27:59 f., and parallel passages; Jn 19:40-42). Christ passed through a real experience of death, including the final moment which is generally a part of the whole process: he was placed in the tomb.

It is a confirmation that this was a real and not merely an apparent death. His soul, separated from the body, was glorified in God, but his body lay in the tomb as a corpse.

During the three (incomplete) days between the moment when he "expired" (cf. Mk 15:37) and the resurrection, Jesus experienced the "state of death," that is, the separation of body and soul, as in the case of all people. This is the primary meaning of the words "he descended into hell"; they are linked to what Jesus himself had foretold when, in reference to the story of Jonah, he had said, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt 12:40).

This is precisely what the words about the descent into hell mean: the heart or the womb of the earth. By dying on the cross, Jesus had delivered his spirit into the Father's hands: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" (Lk 23:46). If death implies the separation of the soul from the body, it follows that in Christ's case also there was, on the one hand, the body in the state of a corpse, and on the other, the heavenly glorification of his soul from the very moment of his death. The First Letter of Peter speaks of this duality when, in reference to Christ's death for sins, it says of him: "Being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit" (1 Pet 3:18). Soul and body are therefore in the final condition corresponding to their nature, although on the ontological plane the soul has a relationship to be reunited with its own body. However, the letter adds: "In spirit he [Christ] went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Pet 3:19). This seems to indicate metaphorically the extension of Christ's salvation to the just men and women who had died before him.

Obscure as it is, the Petrine text confirms the others concerning the concept of the "descent into hell" as the complete fulfillment of the gospel message of salvation. It is Christ—buried in the tomb as regards the body, but glorified in his soul, which had been admitted to the fullness of the beatific vision of God—who communicates his state of beatitude to all the just whose state of death he shares in regard to the body.

The Letter to the Hebrews describes his freeing of the souls of the just: "Since...the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Heb 2:14-15). As dead—and at the same time as alive "forevermore"—Christ has "the keys of death and Hades" (cf. Rev 1:17-18). This manifests and puts into effect the salvific power of Christ's sacrificial death which brought redemption to all, even to those who died before his coming and his "descent into hell," but who were contacted by his justifying grace.

In the First Letter of Peter we read further: "The reason the gospel was preached even to the dead was that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God" (1 Pet 4:6). This verse also, though not easy to interpret, confirms the concept of the "descent into hell" as the ultimate phase of the Messiah's mission. It is a phase condensed into a few days by the texts which try to present in a comprehensible way to those accustomed to reason and to speak in metaphors of space and time, but immensely vast in its real meaning of the extension of redemption to all people of all times and places, even to those who in the days of Christ's death and burial were already in the "realm of the dead." The word of the Gospel and of the cross reaches all, even those belonging to the most distant generations of the past, because all who have been saved have been made partakers in the redemption, even before the historical event of Christ's sacrificial death on Calvary took place. The concentration of their evangelization and redemption into the days of the burial emphasizes that the historical fact of Christ's death contains the super-historical mystery of the redemptive causality of Christ's humanity, the "instrument" of the omnipotent divinity. With the entrance of Christ's soul into the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity, the "freeing from imprisonment" of the just who had descended to the realm of the dead before Christ, finds its point of reference and explanation. Through Christ and in Christ there opens up before them the definitive freedom of the life of the Spirit, as a participation in the life of God (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 52, a. 6). This is the truth that can be drawn from the biblical texts quoted and which is expressed in the article of the creed which speaks of the "descent into hell."

We can therefore say that the truth expressed by the Apostles' Creed in the words: "he descended into hell," confirms the reality of Christ's death. At the same time it proclaims the beginning of his glorification, and not only of Christ's glorification, but of all those who, by means of his redemptive sacrifice, have been prepared for sharing in his glory in the happiness of God's kingdom.