Subscribe to Future Posts on A Catholic Life

Enter email address:

Friday, July 5, 2013
How Could Christ Descend into Hell?

Excerpted from: Got Questions?: Bible Questions Answered—Answers to the Questions People Are Really Asking by Michael Houdmann

This notion of Jesus descending into hell causes confusion for a lot of Catholics. This confusion arises over the fact that most Catholics understand Hell to be a place of eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners. They rightfully reason that since Jesus was sinless, there could be no point of his going to Hell for himself, and since the punishment for others was eternal, there would be no point in his going there for others.

The problem is of course with the word Hell itself. 

This concept comes primarily from the Apostles' Creed, which states, “He descended into hell.” There are also a few Scripture lines which, depending on how they are translated, describe Jesus as  going to “Hell.” In studying this issue, it is important to first understand what the Bible teaches about the realm of the dead.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word used to describe the realm of the dead is sheol. It simply means the “place of the dead” or the “place of departed souls/spirits.” The New Testament Greek word that is used for Hell is “hades,” which also refers to “the place of the dead.” Other Scriptures in the New Testament indicate that sheol/hades is a temporary place, where souls are kept as they await the final resurrection and judgment. Revelation 20:11-15 gives a clear distinction between the two. Hell (the lake of fire) is the permanent and final place of judgment for the lost. Hades is a temporary place.

Sheol/hades is a realm with two divisions (Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27-31), the abodes of the saved and the lost. The abode of the saved was called “paradise” and “Abraham's bosom.” The abodes of the saved and the lost are separated by a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26). When Jesus ascended to heaven, He took the occupants of paradise (believers) with Him (Ephesians 4:8-10). The lost side of sheol/hades has remained unchanged.

Jesus said to the thief beside Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus’ body was in the tomb; His soul/spirit went to the “paradise” side of sheol/hades. He then removed all the righteous dead from paradise and took them with Him to heaven. Unfortunately, in many translations of the Bible, translators are not consistent in how they translate the Hebrew and Greek words for “sheol,” “hades,” and “Hell.”

When Jesus cried upon the cross, “Oh Father, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), it was then that He was separated from the Father because of the sin poured out upon Him. As He gave up His spirit, He said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). His suffering in our place was completed. His soul/spirit went to the paradise side of hades. He then awaited the resurrection of His body and His return to glory in His ascension.

The point of this word construction in the Creed is to make us realize and recognize that Jesus, a man like us in all things except sin, died a man's death. Jesus was in exactly the same condition that any man finds himself in when he is certifiably dead. There was a real separation between the physical body and the spiritual soul.

The fact that His body and soul did not reunite for three days is taken as further proof that He was not simply in a coma and not really dead, but that He was really and truly dead as all men die. It was not a case of Jesus' needing three days to clean out the paradise side of Hades. Rather we needed proof that He actually died, and almost everybody is willing to accept the fact that, even had He been buried alive, no man could survive three days without oxygen.

The Creed continues with the statement that on the third day He rose from the dead. Jesus rose from the dead in the same body He died in. In John 2:19-20, Jesus said, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews therefore said, 'It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?' But He was speaking of the temple of his body." Jesus prophesied that He would rise from the dead in the very body in which He died. Right now, in heaven, Jesus has that same physical body. After His resurrection He appeared to Thomas. "Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing." Notice that Jesus still retained the hole in His side where He was pierced. "but one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water" (John 19:34).

Though He was raised physically, His body was a glorified body. It was the same body, but it was different. 1 Cor. 15:42-44 says, "So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body."

We do not know exactly what a resurrected body is capable of accomplishing, but Jesus did appear in rooms unannounced. Perhaps we might have the same ability at our resurrection.

The physical resurrection of Jesus is a very important doctrine. 1 Cor. 15:14 says, "and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain." The reason it is so important is because Jesus' physical resurrection is the proof that death has been conquered and that we too will be physically resurrected. To say that Jesus did not rise from the dead is to say that death had victory over Him. If that were so, we would be without hope and sin would still have its power.

Catholics make themselves present to the mystery of the resurrection when they pray the first glorious mystery of the most holy Rosary. As is the case with all the decades of the Rosary, Catholics are not merely engaging in an imaginative memory exercise. They are actually inserting themselves as participants in the ongoing and timeless event which the holy Gospel records for us in words.

If we accept the event of the Ascension then we must embrace the words Jesus spoke on the occasion of that event. Those words are given to us in the form of a command. Let's read aloud the words of that Gospel passage which proclaims the Ascension of Christ: "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
The first thing we noticed about this passage is that although the words are meant for everyone in the church, they are first addressed to the apostles, the first bishops of the church that Jesus Christ founded. Jesus is commissioning them (and us, by way of our submission to them) to make converts of everybody in the world. This voluntary conversion is not to be done at the point of the sword but through the water of baptism. Everyone in the world is to be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. These are Jesus his last words to us. They are His last will and testament. We inherit what He was given by the Father, that is, “all power in heaven and on earth.”

He specifies what we are to do with our inheritance. Under the leadership of His bishops we are to convert the world. There is a codicil to this last will and testament and it is this: Under the leadership of His bishops we are to teach the whole world to observe not just some of, but all of that which He has commanded. Put in the simplest and briefest of terms, Jesus wants His bishops to tell everyone to: obey the pope, honor and venerate His mother, be baptized, receive holy Communion, go to Confession, get married and according to church law, perpetuate His Holy Thursday activity by Ordaining bishops and priests to say Mass, and Anoint the sick, and to be Confirmed and strengthened in the faith, and to love your neighbor as He has loved us.

As Jesus returns to His Father through the Ascension, He invites us to become a new creation. As He has shared in our humanity, He invites us to share in His Divinity. Because of what Christ has done, we are no longer only or merely human. We share in His divine life in, with, and through the Church He founded on the rock called Peter. Jesus assures us that He alone is the way, the truth, and the life. He promises us that no one comes to the Father except through him. He is the way. There is no other. Unless we observe all that He commanded, with heavy emphasis on the word all, we are not going to the Father.

The Creed’s statement that Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father is simply an affirmation that all that He did to save us was acceptable to, and accepted by His father who is now our Father.  Abba Father!


Copyright / Disclaimer

Copyright Notice: Unless otherwise stated, all items are copyrighted under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. If you quote from this blog, cite a link to the post on this blog in your article.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this blog are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and/or believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”