Christ’s Descent to the Dead

Following up on last week’s article on prayers for the dead, it is helpful to ask what the Apostle’s Creed means when it says that Jesus Christ “descended into hell” before rising on the third day and how that descent is consistent with His promise to the repentant thief “You will be with Me this day in paradise.” On this point, as on so many others, it is important to remember the original meaning of terms used long ago. In this case, the phrase was part of the Apostles’ Creed, which as the name implies was written during the time of the Apostles in the first century. This creed, which was originally in Greek, says that Jesus descended into “Hades,” which in turn is Sheol in Hebrew and inferna in Latin. Those terms meant simply the abode of all the dead before Jesus’
death, whether good or bad. Because none of the dead could be in heaven until Jesus merited forgiveness of our sins through His death on the Cross, those among the dead who were open to God’s grace were in a place that would later be called “the limbo of the just.” Thus the descent into hell does not imply a descent to the place for the condemned, but rather a descent to the place of the dead. See Catechism 633-637. In fact, some translations of the Apostle’s Creed say that Jesus “descended to the dead.”

This reference to Jesus descending into hell, therefore, means first that Jesus really died and that His soul really dwelt for a time in the abode of the dead. See Catechism 632. When among the dead who were in the limbo of the just, Jesus preached the Gospel to them and then brought them into paradise. Those alive during His earthly ministry could hear Him preach to them; and we now hear His words in the Scriptures and the sacraments. The dead were not deprived of this benefit, but also heard His voice proclaiming salvation to all of them who were willing to accept His message, repent of sins and receive His grace. See 1 Pet. 4:6.

But for us now, there is also an important implication. As Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his book entitled Eschatology, because Jesus truly experienced the pain and loneliness of the separation of body and soul and departure from the earth, we can assure those who are dying that Jesus will be with them along their final path. And when our time comes, we will know that He will be with us through the clouds and mystery of death to guide us onto final glory.