Why do we say Jesus "descended into hell"?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Monday 16, July 2012 | Category:   Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

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?

descent into hell
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.

Scripture
• 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

Books
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)

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