This phrase appears in the less commonly prayed Apostles’ Creed (not in the Nicene Creed usually recited at Mass), which may account for why more pew-sitters don’t question them. After all, church teaching defines hell as the place of the damned. Why would Jesus visit those who cannot be saved?
|ICON of Jesus descending into hell (detail).|
The answer lies buried in scripture, as it often does. Theologically, hell derives from an earlier conception of Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek). Whatever you call it, ancient ideas about the afterlife weren’t pretty. There was no life after death in the ancient reckoning: just an underworld of disembodied bare consciousness without volition or motion. Forget everything you know about Judgment Day: the good, the bad, and the boring were all presumed to end up in the same spiritual substrata of uselessness. The dead were called shades, literally shadows of their former selves. Unable to will or to act, they simply moldered together and lamented their lost opportunities.
In the great epic writings of the ancients, heroes often visited the underworld looking for answers, vanquished enemies, or old friends. They might talk to them but they couldn’t offer any assistance. The story of Jesus is different. A wonderful homily for Holy Saturday found in the Liturgy of the Hours’ Office of Readings says it all: “Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness . . . because the King is asleep. . . . 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 . . . ‘I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead’ ” (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 635).
The idea that Jesus went to the dead first with the good news of the Resurrection is not a fabrication of early homilists. John’s gospel claims: “The hour is coming and is here now when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (5:25). Luke picks up the theme in Acts, and Paul alludes to it in his letters. The First Letter of Peter says that after being put to death Christ “went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient” and that “the gospel was preached even to the dead” (3:18-19; 4:6). So that answers the question: Jesus went to the dead first to bring good news to those who needed it the most.
• Psalms 6:6; 88:2-13; Matthew 12:40; John 5:25; Acts 2:24-31; Romans 8:11; 10:7; 1 Corinthians 15:20; Philippians 2:10; Ephesians 4:9; Hebrews 2:14-15; 13:20; 1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6; Revelation 1:18
• Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction by Terrence Nichols (Brazos Press, 2010)
• Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament by Philip S. Johnston (IVP Academic, 2002)
This is one of those questions that are as old as humanity: Could it really be possible that a good and all-powerful God not only allowed evil and sin to come into the world but also continues to tolerate them?
Looking at the world, the case for the prosecution seems pretty strong. The human race can’t seem to rid itself of its addiction to violence in all its many splendored forms. It can’t figure out how to share its considerable resources so that everyone has enough. It seems bent on destroying the planet on which it depends for existence. It doesn’t take very good care of many of its children. Ignorance, selfishness, meanness, short-sightedness, vulgarity, corruption, and dishonesty are commonplace. Many people are so wrapped up in themselves that they barely notice anything around them beyond what they want or what is getting in their way. Most days are pretty much the Seven Deadly Sins on Parade. Pockets of goodness exist, but somebody doing something nice for another person is a news story.
On top of all that, things don’t seem to have changed much. In the early church a movement of Christians called Gnosticism looked at all the badness going on around them and concluded creation was just that—bad—and that the God they had been taught to believe created the world couldn’t really be God, given the results. There had to be some other, true God.
Early church fathers like Saints Irenaeus and Augustine recognized that to challenge the most basic belief of all—about God—threatened the entire faith on which that belief was based, so these great theologians spent a lot of time refuting Gnostic-type beliefs. They realized though, that they had to come up with their own explanation of how evil and sin came into the world and how God allowed—and continued to allow—them to exist.
The argument went like this. When God creates something, that something is by necessity outside of God, which means God’s perfect power and goodness do not translate into what is created, which thus has limits, imperfections, and flaws. Like many people of faith of his time, Augustine looked to the biblical story of the Fall of humanity and suggested that the flaw that allowed Adam and Eve to disobey the one and only rule God gave them was pride. Pride was a kind of self-willfulness. It gave you a sense you could exist on your own without reference to God.
All that theology may be cold comfort in response to death, illness, accident, injury, betrayal, cruelty, and other bad things, but the “good news”—literally—is that throughout all time God has revealed that it is the divine intention to bring God’s beloved creation back into harmony. The gift of God’s only Son has been the greatest demonstration of that offer of love. That Son was himself the victim of evil and sin, yet God was able to draw the great good of salvation and eternal life from even that cosmically bad event.
Sin turns you away from God and others, and while the possibility of sin may be unavoidable in this created world, it is always possible to choose to go from being self-centered to other-centered.
• The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an excellent discussion of creation, nos. 268-314
• See also Pope John Paul II’s talk “Created Things Have a Legitimate Autonomy”
• For Irenaeus’ discussion of these issues, see Book 4, Chapter 38 of his Against Heresies
• For Augustine, see Chapters 1-5 of Book 14 of his City of God
If by real you mean the kind you get in the supermarket, the short answer is no. First, here’s the ruling, which appears in the directives of a 2004 Vatican instruction (Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 48):
“The bread used in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice must be unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition. It follows therefore that bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament. It is a grave abuse to introduce other substances, such as fruit or sugar or honey, into the bread for confecting the Eucharist. Hosts should obviously be made by those who are not only distinguished by their integrity, but also skilled in making them and furnished with suitable tools.”
The Code of Canon Law (canon 924) and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (nos. 319-321) affirm this practice. GIRM adds: “By reason of the sign, it is required that the material for the Eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food. Therefore, it is desirable that the Eucharistic bread, even though unleavened and made in the traditional form, be fashioned in such a way that the priest at Mass with the people is truly able to break it into parts and distribute these to at least some of the faithful. However, small hosts are not at all excluded when the large number of those receiving Holy Communion or other pastoral reasons call for them.”
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, we don’t know what the apostles used. It’s possible they preferred the azymous (unleavened) bread used for Passover celebrations, so the Western church tended toward that. Eastern churches preferred fermented (leavened) bread, as they still do. Early on the bread and wine were contributed by the faithful themselves, each contributing their portion. So types and textures surely varied. As reverence for the Eucharist grew, special altar breads were prepared, rounded, and stamped with a religious emblem. These “hosts” became smaller and thinner as the familiar communion wafers we receive today.
• Exodus 12:8, 15-20; 13:3, 6-7; 29:2; Leviticus 23:4-8; Deuteronomy 16:3-8; Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7-8; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8
• The Breaking of the Bread: The Development of the Eucharist According to the Acts of the Apostles by Eugene LaVerdiere, S.S.S. (Liturgy Training Publications, 2007)