Why Did Christ Descent Into Hell?
This is an article that I actually meant to write in Holy Saturday but was never able to. However various people have been asking me this question of why Christ descended into hell such as we recite in the Apostles’ Creed. For this reason I will address this doctrinal matter and describe it as best as I can, and at the same time help refute some theological errors that usually come up with this doctrinal aspect.
What is Hell?
I think that the best way to start this article is by explaining what hell means and furthermore on the four main and particular places that we usually mean when referring to hell. Upon doing this I will explain where in hell Christ really descended to.
First and foremost “hell” in the strictest sense of the word is the absence and separation of the Beatific vision “being separated from the vision of God,” this is the chief punishment of hell which is known as the pain of loss. This pain of loss means that those in a state of hell are separated from God and do not have possession of the Beatific vision. In other words they do not see God for who he is (The Trinity).
Different Abodes of Hell
There are four main places that can be said to be “hell” as the various Catechisms and Church documents of the Church often point to. Thus we will consider what these four specific places are that constitute hell, and we will describe where specifically it is in hell that Christ descended to.
- The first abode is in what is known as the Hell of the damned (Gehenna). This is the specific and most common usage for hell that we are accustomed to using. The Hell of the Damned (Gehenna) is the permanent and final place of punishment for the wicked after the resurrection. It is the Lake of Fire described in Revelation 19 and 20. This is the place that we usually describe as Hell. After Christ arose from the dead in His Resurrection, Hell exclusively became a place for the damned.
- There is also the fires of purgatory where there are the souls of just men who are being cleansed from all stains of sin both for venial and unatoned Mortal sin. This is the particular place where those who are saved, but still need to be purified and purged for imperfections and stains of sins go. This is true as scripture affirms “And to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:23) then once again “If any man’ s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire”. (1 Cor 3:14-15)
- There is thirdly what is known as Sheol which is known as the valley of the dead. This place was the non-permanent or temporary place of the disembodied spirits/souls of dead, both the good as well as of the bad. This place was temporal and only existed before Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. This place was sub divided into two specific places by an unpassable abyss. The upper side of Sheol consisted in what is known as the Limbo of the Fathers. This is more commonly known as Abraham’s abode where the souls of the just who died waiting for the Lord remained until he descended to hell. The lower part consisted in what would be known as Torments (Tartarus) the non-permanent or temporary place of the disembodied spirits/souls of the damned.
It is specifically here in Sheol in which Christ descended to.
- There is a last possible place that can be described as “hell” and this is what is known as the Limbo of the children. This is the place for unbaptized infants and possibly those who have not attained the state or capacity of reason, but who nevertheless died without the regenerating waters of Baptism. It is to be noted though that while widely considered by the Church, this is only a probable theological opinion but one with much precedent in the Church.
Why did Christ descend into Hell?
Now that we know the reality that Christ descended into hell and that he specifically descended into the part of hell known as Sheol, we will look at the fact that Christ descended specifically into the Limbo of the Fathers The place where the just who had died in a state of grace and who waited with a hope in the coming of the Lord were. We will furthermore see why Christ descended into hell.
When Adam and Eve committed the original sin of man by eating of the forbidden fruit and thus giving in to pride, they closed of Heaven because of the stains of that original sin. In the book of Genesis we obviously see the reality that death is a consequence of original sin. In both Genesis chapter 2 and Chapter 3 this is clearly shown. God tells Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 “And he commanded him, saying: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.” Similarly in Genesis 3:19 God tells Adam a consequence of his sin “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou was taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.”
Not only did Adam and Even die a temporal death but they also closed of Heaven from themselves. This is why Saint Anselm states that Christ needed to become man and be crucified. He needed to make Divine restitution for the sins of man. St. Anselm states in contemplation of the guilt of sin that sin, as an insult offended God infinitely, and therefore demands an infinite expiation. Such expiation, however, can be achieved by a Divine Person only. To be capable of thus representing mankind, this person must be, at the same time, man and God.
“For as a result of Adam’s sin, Heaven was closed against men. Even those already purified from sin could not enjoy the direct sign of God until our Redemption had been completed by Christ’s visible Ascension into Heaven. The just who lived under the Old Law (Old Testament) and were made pure either at death, or after a time in Purgatory, and had attained the perfect holiness required for entrance into glory, had to wait for the coming of God-made-Man and the full accomplishing of His visible mission”1
It is thus the just and holy who died in the state of grace in the Old Testament whom Christ went to deliver when he we say he descended into Hell. This is a very important distinction to be made for several reasons. There are various grave and erroneous interpretations and ideas being held by several theologians and individuals that Christ also went to liberate the damned in Gehenna as well. This is completely false since this implies that hell is not eternal which is obviously theologically wrong and false.
Sheol and the Limbo of the Fathers in Scripture
There are several passages in Scripture that both explicitly and implicitly show the reality of the Limbo of the Fathers and Sheol during the Old Law. We already covered that death is a natural consequence due to original sin. Furthermore we covered that because of original sin Heaven was closed off to men until that Divine Restitution and atonement which Saint Anselm talked about was completed.
There are however other places in scripture which also describe the existence of Sheol and the Limbo of the Fathers which existed in the Old Law. The first place to start is right in Ephesians 4:9 when Saint Paul describes that before Christ arose from the dead he had to descend to the lower parts of the earth “Now that he ascended, what is it, but because he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Eph 4:9)
Saint Peter puts it even more clearly when he talks about the fact that Christ descended in order to preach to the souls in prison “Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit, In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison.” (1 Pet 3:18-19) It is specifically the “prison” of Sheol and the Limbo of the Fathers which Saint Peter is describing.
Did Christ suffer when he descended into Hell?
In finishing this article I will explain why it is not true that Christ suffered pain when he descended into hell. Just as Christ clearly did not descend into the hell of the damned (Gehenna) he also did not suffer pains in hell for various reasons.
We should keep in mind that Christ in descending into hell did not suffer pains such as what is known as the pain of Loss (Separation from God and the loss of the Beatific vision). For how can Christ who is God be separated from himself? Is not the Holy trinity united with each other?
This is a very good commentary by Saint Thomas Aquinas
In truth, on the part of the soul it follows among men from sin after death that they descend into hell not only as regards place, but also as regards punishment. But just as the body of Christ was indeed under the earth according to place, but not according to the common defect of dissolution, so also the soul of Christ descended indeed into hell according to place, not however in order to undergo punishment there, but rather to release from punishment those who were detained there on account of the sin of the first parent, for which he had already fully satisfied by suffering death: whence after his death nothing remained to be suffered, but he descended into hell locally without suffering any punishment, that he might show himself as the liberator of the living and the dead. From this also it is said that he alone was free among the dead, because his soul was not subject to punishment in hell, nor his body to corruption in the tomb. [Aquinas, Compendium theologiae I, cap. 235]2
This passage clearly shows that although Christ descended into hell, he did so only according to place. In other words Christ was only in hell “by his mere presence and glory” however without punishment.
Here is another passage by Saint Thomas Aquinas
“In assuming a human nature therefore Christ willed to take upon himself certain defects according to a twofold criterion: they should be those which were common to all men on account of sin, yet did not imply or even incline towards any defect of grace or virtue. That a soul should descend into hell after death, before Christ’s coming, common to all men on account of original sin, and so Christ also endured this, descending locally into hell. [Aquinas, In III Sententiarum, d. 22, q. 2, a. 1a]3
Thomas then considers each possible kind of punishment (poena) and concludes that Christ cannot have suffered any of them in hell. The pain of loss (poena damni) which is the lack of the vision of God would clearly imply a defect of the consummate grace of glory, and hence is excluded. The pain of sense (poena sensus) could be either satisfactory (poean satisfactoria,) purgative (poean purgativan,) or damnative (poeana damnativa).”4
Christ could not have had any of these pains mentioned above for various reasons. Pains cannot be satisfactory after death because satisfactory prayers are used only for gaining merit and making up for past sins. Those who are already dead cannot possibly gain merit and satisfaction such as the Holy Souls in purgatory can’t merit for themselves. Similarly purgative pains are only given to those who have imperfections and stains of sin. (Once again such as the souls in purgatory). Christ being God is for that very reason perfect and does not need to be purged of anything since he has no imperfections. Lastly damnative pains are given on account of the damned in hell because of mortal sins and a defection in grace. Christ had absolutely no sin, and definitely not mortal sin, so for that reason Christ could not possibly have damnative pains (punishments) either.
1)Ripley, Francis J. This Is the Faith. Rockford, IL: Tan, 2002. 406.
2)Saint Thomas Aquinas, Compendium theologiae I, cap. 235
3)Aquinas, In III Sententiarum, d. 22, q. 2, a. 1a
4)Christ’s Descent into Hell