Question: I am aware that when we say in the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus descended into hell, we do not mean the hell of the damned, but merely the place of the dead. But do we have any idea what that place was like? Also, were the justified and the condemned in that place together?
— Leonard Loftus, Genesco, Ill.
Answer: You are correct in your distinction between the hell of the damned and the “hell” that refers to the place where all the dead were until the Messiah came. It is an unfortunate fact, that in English, “hell” is used to refer to both places. But the Jewish people clearly distinguished between Sheol, where all who had died were detained, and the hell of the damned, which Jesus often called Gehenna.
As for what Sheol was like, we are left to a great deal of conjecture. Scripture describes it as a place of darkness, as the pit (Jb 17:13–16). The state of the deceased there is described as a place of utter inactivity. The souls there would seem to be in a sleeplike, semi-comatose state. No one there is able to thank the Lord, or praise him (Is 38:18), there is no work, no thought, no knowledge, no wisdom expressed (Ez 9:10). It is a place from which no one emerges and is sometimes conceived as a fortress (Is 38:10).
It would seem that both the just and the wicked went there before the coming of Christ, though some are said to go down there “in peace” (1 Kgs 2:6; etc.) and some go down there “in sorrow” (Gn 37:35; etc.).
Further, in this sort of suspended state, there does not seem to be any mention of punishment of the wicked, or reward for the just. Rather, it would seem that all waited until the Lord, who alone can deliver from Sheol, would come (1 Sm 2:6; Ps 16:10 etc.). Mysteriously, God is present to those there (Ps 139:8) but how the dead might experience that presence is not described.
It is to this place that the Lord descended. As Scripture implies, he awoke the dead (Eph 5:14) and preached to these “souls in prison” (1 Pt 3:19–20). And while we have no complete biblical description of what took place, we can reasonably speculate that some among them, in particular the just, rejoiced in him and accepted him, while others rejected him even in death, and from there descended to the hell of the damned.
Prayers of the Liturgy
Question: Throughout the prayers of the liturgy, e.g., the Kyrie, we often speak of and to “the Lord.” Are we referring here to Jesus, or the Father?
— Helen Streeter, Englewood, Fla.
Answer: In the Kyrie, we are referring to Jesus. This is made fairly clear in the verses, e.g., “You are the Son of God and the Son of Mary, Kyrie eleison.”
However, more frequently “Lord” refers to the Father. Most of the prayers of the Mass, and especially the Eucharistic prayer, are directed to the Father, through Christ. There are certain exceptions to this, but in those cases that we are referring to Jesus rather than the Father, it is made clear from the wording and context of the prayer.
Generally then the Mass is understood as a prayer of Christ the High Priest, directed to his Father, and it is in Christ’s own prayer that we join.
Thus, with certain clear exceptions, “Lord” almost always refers to the Father.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.