Skip to comments."He Descended into Hell. . .": Did Jesus Really Go To Hell? (Special Holy Saturday Podcast and Post)
Posted on 04/07/2012 12:28:31 AM PDT by Mighty_Quinn
On Holy Saturday we meditate on one of the most obscure lines in the Apostles' Creed: "he descended into hell." What does this part of the Creed refer to? Is it biblical?
Moreover, what does it mean to say Christ "descended into hell"? Did he experience the torments of wicked?
Christ and the "Spirits in Prison"
In 1 Peter we read that Christ continued to save souls--even after his death.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly did not obey, when Gods patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:1821)According to this passage, after he died, Christ went to those who died in the flood judgment.
Where were these figures? The "hell of the damned"? Well, not quite. Let's look at this passage in light of ancient Judaism.
Life After Death in Ancient Judaism
While some ancient Jews did not believe in an afterlife (e.g., the Sadducees, cf. Acts 23:8; Josephus, Ant. 18.16), there clearly was a widespread belief that the spirits of the dead continued to exist and were even conscious. This is not a dissertation on the topic so I obviously can't be comprehensive, but let me hit the highlights.
Belief in life after death is evident, for example, in 1 Samuel, where Saul has a medium summon the spirit of Saul, which comes up, presumably, from the place of the dead:
Then the woman said, Whom shall I bring up for you? He said, Bring up Samuel for me. 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman said to Saul, Why have you deceived me? You are Saul. 13 The king said to her, Have no fear; what do you see? And the woman said to Saul, I see a god coming up out of the earth. 14 He said to her, What is his appearance? And she said, An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe. And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance. (1 Samuel 28:1114).Of course, necromancy was prohibited by the Law (Deut 18:10-11) and for this act Saul is punished; he is told that he will be given into the hands of his enemies (cf. 1 Sam 28:1619). The point to notice here, however, is that Samuel is portrayed as existing after death.
By the time the book Wisdom of Solomon was written, we have even more passages clear about life after death. Wisdom describes how the souls of the righteous belong with God:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. 2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, 3 and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. 4 For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. (Wisdom 3:14).So where did these souls go?
The Old Testament describes the place of the dead as Sheol (e.g., Gen 37:35). It is frequently described as being located under the earth (cf. Isa 7:11; 57:9; Ezek 31:14-15). It is typically portrayed as having bars or gates (Job 17:16; 37:17; Isa 38:10; Ps 9:13), thus making it reminiscent of a prison.
Though Sheol is usually depicted as a place of silence, at times those there are depicted as speaking. For example, Isaiah describes how those in Sheol will deride the king of Babylon:
Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come, it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. 10 All of them will speak and say to you: You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us! (Isa 14:910).Hades
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, Sheol is known as Hades (cf. Ps 15:10; Eccl 9:10). The term appears throughout the New Testament. Borrowing from the imagery we have seen above linked to Sheol, for example, Jesus tells Peter that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church (Matt 16:18). Hades can therefore be understood as a kind of prison for the dead.
The point to underscore here is that all the dead go there--not simply the "damned". 1 Enoch explains that not all those who go to Hades should despair since the righteous will one day get out.
Fear ye not, ye souls of the righteous, And be hopeful ye that have died in righteousness. 5 And grieve not if your soul into Sheol has descended in grief. And that in your life your body fared not according to your goodness. But wait for the day of the judgement of sinners and for the day of cursing and chastisement (1 Enoch 102:4-5).We might also reference to the Apocalypse of Zephaniah. The book is dated to the first century and was likely written before the fall of Jerusalem (see Wintermutes intro in OTP 1). There we read about an angel who is specifically placed over the souls there. The language here clearly evokes the same imagery we find in 1 Peter, e.g., a prison of the dead, the flood).
15 He said to me, Take heed. Dont worship me. I am not the Lord Almighty, but I am the great angel, Eremiel, who is over the abyss and Hades, the one in which all of the souls are imprisoned from the end of the Flood, which came upon the earth, until this day. 16 Then I inquired of the angel, What is the place to which I have come? He said to me, It is Hades. (Apoc. Zeph. 6:15-16).The belief in a place of the dead is clearly also evident in Jesus parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (cf. Luke 16:19-31).
Jesus' Descent into "Hell"
The creedal formula, he descended into hell, is derived from this Jewish outlook. Hell here does not simply refer to the hell of the damned. The Creed is not affirming that Christ suffered the punishment of the wicked. As can be seen in the above texts, Hades or "Hell" was not simply the abode of the wicked.
Consider for example this ancient Christian text, a homily on Holy Saturday:
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 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. . . I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead (PG 43, 440A, 452C).In fact, the idea of Christ leading prisoners up with him to heaven is also attested in Ephesians, a text that also appears to relate a vision similar to that found in 1 Peter 3:
Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. 9 (In saying, He ascended, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. (Eph 4:810)Thomas Aquinas also insists that Christ did not experience the pains of the hell of the damned.
A thing is said to be in a place in two ways. First of all, through its effect, and in this way Christ descended into each of the hells, but in different manner. For going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin, He shed the light of glory everlasting.Finally, while some Catholic theologians of the 20th century may have speculated that Christ endured the pains of the damned, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly puts the matter to rest: Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. (CCC 633).
In another way a thing is said to be in a place through its essence: and in this way Christ's soul descended only into that part of hell wherein the just were detained so that He visited them "in place," according to His soul, whom He visited "interiorly by grace," according to His Godhead. Accordingly, while remaining in one part of hell, He wrought this effect in a measure in every part of hell, just as while suffering in one part of the earth He delivered the whole world by His Passion. (Summa Theologiae III, q. 52, art. 2).
Why Did Christ Descend Into Hell?
In closing, let me add this: Thomas Aquinas gives three reasons why it was fitting that Christ should descend into hell (Summa Theologiae III, q. 52, art. 1).
First, Christ came to deliver us from the penalty of sin (cf. Isa 53:4). Since death was part of that penalty, it was fitting for him to not only die but for his soul to go to the place where the dead had gone before him.
Second, through this action Christ demonstrated that he had overcome Satan by fulfilling the captives in hell. Here Thomas cites Zechariah 9:11: "As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double." This passage, by the way, immediately follows a description of God's eschatological victory (cf. Zech 9:10), something the New Testament writers link with Jesus' death and resurrection.
Finally, Thomas writes it was fitting that just as Jesus was made manifest to those on earth, it was also necessary for him to visit and enlighten those in Hades. Here he cites Philippians 2:10: "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
"He descended into hell" (Special TSP Holy Saturday Podcast) (Right click to download)
This seems a good thread to post this extract from an ancient homily that forms part of today's office of readings: it may be new to some Freepers.
The Lord's descent into the underworld
He has gone to search for our first parent, 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 the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.
The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: My Lord be with you all. Christ answered him: And with your spirit.
He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise.
I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth.
For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you.
See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image.
On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back.
See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you.
The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
“Finally, Thomas writes it was fitting that just as Jesus was made manifest to those on earth, it was also necessary for him to visit and enlighten those in Hades. Here he cites Philippians 2:10: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
The hope for those in the grave, Sheol/Hades/Hell was the resurrection of “both the righteous and unrighteous” to life from the “memorial tombs” at Christ’s command.
As Jesus said of his father, “He is the God of the living, not of the dead”.
Ummmm...He still does. ;O)
A very thoughtful post - good for you. Tomorrow we shall declare - “He is Risen, the Lord has risen indeed.” You have done a good bit of research. Thanks. May your Holy Week be blessed.
What is the source for that beautiful excerpt of Scripture?
Thanks, good post.
The best book I ever read on this subject was by Zodhiates. It’s out of print now, Life After Death. He is not a Catholic, but he was a greek scholar so incredible his Greek lexicon is a standard reference text.
He writes from the point of view of explaining the shades of meanings from the original Greek, which is often very different than how we may read a text.
Jesus said to the thief, “Today you shall be with Me in paradise”.
Let's explore what Jesus meant by the two key words' "today" and "paradise". I am not convinced that the exact translation means "today" as we understand it in modern English.
"But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day." - 2 Peter 3:8
Paradise does not necessarily mean heaven, either. Paradise can mean the state of mankind before original sin as is portrayed by the Garden of Eden. We are however, told more clearly by St. John what paradise means:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God." - Revelation 2:7
Jesus Christ therefore recognizes the thief on the cross as righteous while simultaneously acknowledging the impending physical death of them both.
Jesus Christ did indeed descend into Sheol, to lead the righteous dead from captivity. This included the thief on the cross whose righteousness was acknowledged.
Jesus Christ *did* see him that day in paradise. No other elaboration or theorizing is necessary. The meaning is plain when understood in the context of the afterlife under Judaism.
Thanks, you have given me some things to think about over next few days.
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He went to collect the souls who had been waiting (Limbo sort of place) for the Redeemer to open heaven for them.
annalex posted a wonder painting of this the other day — was it Good Friday. Check out the Daily Readings thread for that day.
But Paradise was this waiting place.....not heaven. That took three days.
Many people are vague about this, I know I was. Hellenized concepts of Hell akin to Dante’s Inferno coupled with translations that treat Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Hell as interchangeable while failing to distinguish the profound change in the status of those righteous dead, from under the Law to the fulfillment of it via the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have led to that vagueness.
It’s actually startling in its clarity, what was meant by that statement. It’s a very appropriate topic to ponder for this day. “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”
And he was.
Using your logic, nothing in scripture means anything. Jesus spoke to the thief, using words the thief would understand.
Where is Christ after he dies on Friday afternoon and before he rises on Easter Sunday? Both Scripture and Tradition answer this question. Consider the following from a Second Century Sermon and also a mediation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
An Ancient Sermon:
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 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. . . I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. [From an Ancient Holy Saturday Homily ca 2nd Century]
Nothing could be more beautiful than that line addressed to Adam and Eve: I am your God, who, for your sake, became your Son.
Scripture also testifies to Christs descent to the dead and what he did: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison .For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 3:18; 1 Peter 4:6).
Consider also this from the Catechism on Christs descent to the dead, which I summarize and excerpt from CCC # 631-635
[The] first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christs descent into hell [is] 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 [1 Peter 3:18-19; 1 Peter 4:6; Heb. 13:20]. Scripture calls [this] 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 [1 Peter 3:18-19].
Such [was] the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they awaited the Redeemer: It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.[cf Psalms 89:49; 1 Sam. 28:19; Ezek 32:17ff; Luke 16:22-26]
Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.
[So] the gospel was preached even to the dead. 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 Christs redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.
Christ went down into the depths of death so that the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.[1 Peter 4:6] Jesus, the Author of life, by dying, destroyed him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage [John 5:25; Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9].
Henceforth the risen Christ holds the keys of Death and Hades, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.[Heb 2:14-15; Acts 3:15]
Here is a link to my recorded sermon on this topic: Where is Jesus Now
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