DAILY REFLECTION SUMMARY: THE DESCENT INTO HELL (CCC 632-635)
Descent and Ascent (631-632)
Christ “descended” and also “ascended far above all the heavens” (Eph 4:9-10). The Creed teaches both his descent into hell and his Resurrection: “Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead” (Easter Vigil Exsultet).
The apostles taught that Jesus, like all men, joined everyone else in the realm of death. However, he descended there as Saviour “to preach to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19).
Declaring the Just (633-634)
This abode of the dead is called “hell” because the souls are deprived of the vision of God. Jesus delivered only the “holy souls.” He did not descend into hell to deliver the damned or to destroy the hell of damnation. Rather, he freed the just who had gone before him (Council of Rome).
When Jesus “preached even to the dead” (1 Pet 4:6) he completely fulfilled his mission. This act shows that Christ’s redemptive act has spread to all men of all times.
Preaching to the Dead (635)
Jesus said that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn 5:25). By dying, Jesus destroyed the devil (who has the power of death) and delivered those who “through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb 2:14-15). “Today a great silence reigns on earth. The King has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve captive with him” (Ancient Holy Saturday Homily).
We believe that, before Christ’s resurrection, he went to the underworld of the dead. To affirm that if he truly rose from the dead, he had to be dead in the first place. This abode of the dead was not where good and evil souls dwelt contentedly on equal terms. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the good souls are happy there whereas the bad souls are in agony. Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom” or paradise; the rich man is in torment, yet both are among the dead (Lk 16:19-31).
In descending among the dead, Christ presented himself to the souls in Abraham’s bosom as the Messiah, the one who had at last redeemed the living and the dead, and led them to salvation. St Peter described this by saying that in his spirit Christ went to preach to the spirits in prison, referring to the righteous souls waiting in Abraham’s bosom (1 Pet 3:18) for him to do so.
Christ assured us that he had died, yet he now lives for ever and ever, holding the keys of death and of the underworld (Rev 1:18). In other words, he is the one and only redeemer of the living and the dead, past, present and future.