Jesus’ descent into hell

Question: In the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus is said to have “descended into hell” after he died and before he rose again. I don’t really understand this. Why would Jesus descend into hell? Isn’t hell the place of the damned?

John, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Answer: Hell, in the context of the Apostles’ Creed, does not mean what we understand by the word today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point as follows: “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” (No. 633). 

Jesus was not going into the place of the damned, “but to free the just who had gone before him” (ibid.). Jesus went into hell to preach the Gospel to the dead. 

As the Catechism puts it: “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. 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” (No. 634). 

There is an Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday (quoted in the Catechism, see No. 635) that expresses powerfully the meaning of Jesus’ descent into hell. The passage reads as follows:  

“Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all those who have slept ever since the world began. ... He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him — he who is both their God and the son of Eve. ... [Jesus says to Adam] ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. ... I order you, O sleeper, awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’” 

The Catechism contextualizes the statement of the Apostles’ Creed you mention in these words: “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” (No. 632). 

In Catholic theology, then, hell can have two meanings. It is, on the one hand, the place of the damned who have fundamentally rejected all that is good and just and condemned themselves to an eternity without God.  

On the other hand, it has a more neutral meaning as the place where all the just who lived before Christ went after death to await salvation.  

The biblical paradigm for the difference between the two is the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man — in hell in the first sense — could not be reached by God’s love, while Lazarus — in hell in the second sense — was received into the bosom of Abraham. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.