Jesus’ Descent Into Hell

Q: Lately, it has been a point of contention on a popular Protestant radio program that Jesus did not descend into hell. The host points out that Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Why then does the creed say that Jesus descended into hell?

A: Because that’s where paradise was at the time. Paradise — the place of the God’s righteous ones — was not at that time located in heaven. It was a the Ascension of Christ that paradise was relocated to heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church records,

“[T]he souls of all the saints . . . since the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven — have been, are and will be in heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature” (CCC 1023).

Prior to this time, paradise was located in hell.

What’s that you say? Hell is the place of the damned. How could paradise possibly be there? Ah, you reveal that you are a child of the twentieth century. In our day, the English word “hell” has come to take on the idea of being the place of the damned, but in prior eras, the word merely indicated the place of the dead in general, not a place of torment in particular. The original German term from which we get “hell” simply meant where the dead are.

It has only been very recently in the history of English that the term has taken on the exclusive meaning of the place of the damned. In fact, when the King James Version was being translated, it was still used in its broader sense of the place of the dead. Thus we read the King James Bible discussing Jesus’ soul being in hell:

“[David,] seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his [Christ’s] soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:31-32).

Twentieth-century translations have the problem of how to deal with the fact that now the word “hell” means to most people “the place of the damned” and so to avoid implying Jesus went there, they use a different term when rendering this verse.

The Revised Standard Version transliterates the Greek word used here and speaks of “hades.” This Greek term, like the original meaning of the word “hell,” simply meant the place of the dead. Unfortunately, also like the word “hell,” the word “hades” has also taken on the connotation (but not quite as strongly) of being the place of the damned.

To sidestep this, the New International Version says Jesus was not abandoned to “the grave,” but this isn’t very satisfactory either because the Greek word “hades” meant more than “the grave.” It meant the netherworld.

This problem of references to the netherworld taking on connotations of the place of the damned has happened elsewhere, too. Originally, the Latin word infernum simply meant “the lower region” and was also used as a reference to the place of the dead. It, too, or rather its English derivative — inferno — has also acquired the firey connotations of the place of the damned, though these were lacking in its original use.

The only ancient language term I know of that this hasn’t happened to is the Hebrew word sheol, which (since it hasn’t been known to most English speakers) still simply means the place of the dead. The Revised Standard Version took the bold step of using this word when it appears in the Old Testament, but even though it is the Hebrew word that the Greek New Testament renders using hades, the RSV translators did not see fit to use it in the New Testament. If they had, it would have cut through the negative connotations associated with hell, hades, and inferno, but at the price of confronting the English-speaking reader with a totally unfamiliar word used in familiar New Testament passages.

In any event, the reason that we say in the Apostles Creed that Jesus descended into hell is because he did. He descended to the place of the dead. Whether one is most comfortable calling it sheol, hades, infernum, or hell, it doesn’t matter. That’s where he went, and the New Testament says so, not only in places like the Acts passage we quoted, but in places like this:

“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 God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark” (1 Peter 3:18-20a).

“For 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 Peter 4:6).

The Apostles’ Creed was simply translated at a time when the word “hell” had a broader meaning in English than it does now, but it doesn’t say anything different than the Bible. Jesus went to the place of the dead when he died.

Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains his descent into hell:

‘HE DESCENDED INTO HELL. ON THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN’

631 Jesus ‘descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens.’[Eph 4:9-10] The Apostles’ Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth:

Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.[Roman Missal, Easter Vigil 18, Exsultet]

Paragraph I. Christ Descended into Hell

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was ‘raised from the dead’ presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.[Acts 3:15; Rom 8:11; I Cor 15:20; cf. Heb 13:20] This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: 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 Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.[cf. I Pt 3:18-19]

633 Scripture calls the 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.[cf. Phil 2:10; Acts 2:24; Rev 1:18; Eph 4:9; Pss 6:6; 88:11-13] Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into ‘Abraham’s bosom’:[cf. Ps 89:49; I Sam 28:19; Ezek 32:17-32; Lk 16:22-26] ‘It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.’[Roman Catechism 1, 6, 3] 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.[cf. Council of Rome (745): DS 587; Benedict XII, Cum dudum (1341): DS 1011; Clement VI, Super quibusdam (1351): DS 1077; Council of Toledo IV (625): DS 485; Mt 27:52-53]

634 ‘The gospel was preached even to the dead.’[I Pt 4:6] The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. 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 Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

635 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.’[Jn 5:25; cf. Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9] 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.’[Heb 2:14-15; cf. Acts 3:15] 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.’[Rev 1:18; Phil 2:10]

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.’[Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: PG 43, 440A, 452C; LH, Holy Saturday, OR]

IN BRIEF

636 By the expression ‘He descended into hell’, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil ‘who has the power of death’ (Heb 2:14).

637 In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.

The bottom line is, whoever is hosting the radio show you mention is simply making a tempest in a teapot. Jesus did descend into hell. The host just must not have enough background in how language has changed since the Apostles’ Creed was translated into English.

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