Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Do You Mean Jesus "Descended Into Hell"? (Holy Saturday)

 For those of us who recite the Apostles' Creed in English, the article "He descended into hell; on the third day rose again from the dead," can cause confusion.  It can lead to interesting thoughts such as: 
  • "How can God descend into Hell?  If Hell is separation from God, and Jesus is divine; then it wouldn't be Hell anymore," and
  • "On the Cross, Jesus truly became accursed and was separated from the Father.  He actually suffered the pain of Hell - separation from God, on behalf of sinners."
The first notion suffers from a misunderstanding of what the Creed means by "hell," and the second from a deficient understanding of both the Trinity and how Christ atones for our sins.

You see, when we recite the Creed in English, the word we translate as "hell" in English is the Latin word inferos, meaning "those below."  Jesus descended to the realm of the dead - Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek (and Hell in Old English).  St. Paul wrote of this in Ephesians 4:9, "He had also descended into the lower parts of the earth;" and we read of it in Peter's first epistles:
  • "[Jesus,] being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah." (1 Pet.3:18-19)
  • "This is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God." (1 Pet.4:6 )
Prior to Jesus' resurrection, the realm of the dead (Sheol/Hades/"hell") was populated by both the righteous and unrighteous, awaiting judgment.  Because of sin, both had been denied the vision of God in Heaven, but their lot was not identical - the righteous dwelt in what Jesus called "Abraham's Bosom," similar to purgatory (Lk.16:22-26), while the unrighteous experienced a foretaste of the punishment to come.   

After Jesus' death, He sojourned among the righteous in "Abraham's Bosom," and announced the salvation they would soon experience - with His resurrection Heaven would be opened to them.  Some would even physically rise with Him! (See Mt. 27:52-53) Jesus' announcement of salvation to the dead is what we see portrayed in icons of the Resurrection - Jesus has kicked down the doors of Hades and is pulling Adam, Eve, and all the righteous dead up from the grave.

If you would like to read more, I invite you to check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  A happy Holy Saturday to you.

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