Christ’s descent to hell

Question: The Apostles’ Creed contains the line “He descended into hell ...” What is the source for this provision, and what is its theological significance?

J.T. Grady, Rochester,  Massachusetts

Answer: The descent into “hell” is, of course, not the theological place of the damned, but is the place of the dead known to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time as “Sheol.” It was there that all who had died awaited the Messiah who would awaken them to the new kingdom he would establish.

The biblical basis for this teaching is drawn first from 1 Peter 3:19, which speaks of Christ as he went after his death and preached to the imprisoned spirits. Ephesians 4:9 says “he also descended into the lower [regions] of the earth.”

Therefore, though cryptic, these verses, along with ancient Christian tradition, hold that Christ went down among the dead and awoke and preached to the souls detained there. Presumably, those who had awaited his coming in righteousness would have been summoned to faith in him and rejoiced to see him. But those who had not awaited him in righteousness would have been consigned to condemnation at this time.

A sermon from an anonymous second-century author speaks of Christ, having descended, going to Adam and Eve, awaking them and saying to them, “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. ... Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 635).

The significance of this decent to “hell” is that the dead born before Christ are not forgotten or forsaken. They have the Gospel preached to them and are able to assent in faith to it and to Christ. As such, those who desired Christ and accepted him are saved.

Holy images

Question: I recently heard someone call our pastor an iconoclast. What does this term mean? I know it wasn’t meant charitably.

Name withheld, via email

Answer: Strictly speaking, the Iconoclasts were certain Christians of the early Church, mostly in the East, who considered the tradition of having images of Christ or of God, or of any saint, to be in violation of the First Commandment’s prohibition of the worship of “graven images.” Thus, they sought to smash them, as iconoclast literally means image (ikon) smasher (clast).

The Church considered this controversy in the Second Council of Nicea and ruled that icons do not per se violate the commandment, especially in view of the Incarnation of the Lord, where God himself took up the image and nature of man. Clearly, images are not to be worshipped — they are only images — but given God’s own initiative, they are permissible.

More figuratively, calling someone an iconoclast today usually means that they are thought by their accusers to be too eager to remove sacred art, practices or traditions. As such, the term is a synonym for being thoughtlessly or unnecessarily destructive of what others value. One can hope that your pastor is not truly among those who would remove or disregard things others consider valuable merely due to his tastes. The Church’s patrimony of art and tradition has suffered in the past decades from often reckless elimination.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.