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Did Jesus Really Descend into Hell?

If So, Why?

When catechetical sermons were standard, before Vatican II ordered homilies on a wider variety of Sunday readings, people used to know the creed, the commandments and the sacraments better than they do today. An adult asked recently, “Did Jesus really ‘descend into hell,’ and if so why?” Adults before 1965 would hardly ask that question because the creed used to be explained in detail at least every three years.

Growing up in the Diocese of Saginaw, and as a priest of Saginaw before and during Vatican II, I was accustomed to a recurring three-year cycle of catechetical sermons on the 33 Sundays of the church year when the vestments were green. Year One, the sermons were on the Creed, Year Two on the Commandments, Year Three on the Sacraments and Prayer, the same way the Baltimore Catechism was divided.

Yes, Virginia, Jesus really did descend into hell; but it was not the hell of the lost and condemned. It was rather the abode of the dead who were just and were waiting for the promised Redeemer. That Latin wording of Article 5 of the Apostles’ Creed is descendit ad inferos, “he descended into the lower parts of the earth.” This is the literal language St. Paul used in Ephesians 4:9-10. The Greek word is Hades and the Hebrew reads Sheol, both translated as “hell” because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God (Philippians 2:10).

Jesus gave a less confusing name for this “hell” in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:22-26), when he said that the poor man was “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” It is precisely these holy souls, the Old Testament saints, who awaited their Savior in the bosom of Abraham, whom Christ the Lord visited and delivered when he “descended into hell.”

Why did Jesus do this? The new catechism gives two reasons. First, it was to show that he really did die on the cross and sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. His human body was in the tomb from Friday evening until Sunday morning. His human soul united to his divine person was in the meantime with all the other just humans who had died, waiting for salvation in the realm of the dead (1 Peter 3:18-19).

The second reason was to preach the Gospel even to the dead (1 Peter 4:6). The visit to the abode of the just dead brought the Gospel’s message of salvation to complete fulfillment. It was the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase the catechism says was “condensed in time but vast in its real significance.”

That significance was nothing less than the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all people of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption. All praise, glory, honor, blessing and thanksgiving to the Lord Jesus!