By Joseph Tuttle, Benedictine College
In the fifth article of the Apostles Creed, Catholics profess that “He descended into hell and on the third day He rose again from the dead.” Many Catholics do not even think about what they are saying when they profess their faith in the Creed. When they do, they usually ask, “What do we mean by He descended into hell?” This article of the Creed can be confusing to those who do not know how to interpret it.
In the Creed, we profess that Jesus really did die on the Cross and his body was laid in the tomb. We also believe that his soul descended into the realm of the dead. The Church states that Christ “descended there as Savior proclaiming the Good News (the Gospel) to the imprisoned spirits there” (CCC 632).
Now what is meant by the realm of the dead and hell? The realm of the dead, or hell, refers to the place of those souls who are deprived of the beatific vision. In Sacred Scripture, two words are used for the realm of the dead: Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek. Sheol or Hades has also been known as the “limbo of the Fathers.” The hell we usually think of is the place of the damned. In Sacred Scripture, this place is referred to as Gehenna, the place in which those who have chosen to reject the love of God reside. Jesus did not descend into hell (Gehenna) to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation in Gehenna, but to free the just who had gone before him (CCC 633).
Why did Jesus need to go down to release those in Hades? When Adam and Eve first sinned by disobeying God and eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17 RSV), the gates of heaven were closed. But God gave them hope by promising to send a savior who would re-open the gates. Their sin, Original sin, was passed on to all of their descendants instead of the Original Condition. When the prophets and just people died (Moses, Elijah, Noah, St. Joseph, etc.), before the redemptive death of Jesus, they could not go to heaven, even though they were righteous and just in the eyes of God. Therefore Christ, the new Adam, opened these gates with his redemptive death on the Cross. The early Church taught this as is seen in an ancient homily given on Holy Saturday that has these beautiful words: “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 the shadow of death….. And He will say, ‘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’” (CCC 635). And St. Thomas Aquinas also taught this, saying that “upon the holy Fathers, who were detained in hell solely on account of original sin, He shed the light of glory everlasting.” (Summa Theologica, III. q. 52 a. 2)
In conclusion, I would like to quote Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon S.J., from his book The Modern Catholic Dictionary, which provides one of the best definitions of the descent into hell (Hades) and sums it up as follows: “The descent into hell is the coming of Christ before his resurrection to deliver the souls of the just detained in the limbo of the Fathers. The purpose of this coming of Christ’s soul was to deliver all the saved who had died before then by applying the fruits of the Redemption. They were immediately given the beatific vision.”