Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Yes, Christ descended into hell – and that is cause for joy and hope
by Alyssa H. Pitstick, for the Inland Register
(From the April 27, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
How often we have professed these words during Mass. But are we conscious of the great hope they offer us?
I once told a young Catholic friend that I was writing a whole book on this topic. Looking slightly ill, she asked quietly, “Do we believe in that?”
Yes, we do. And it is cause for joy and hope. But how could anything to do with hell ever be good news?
My friend was distressed, because she thought of hell as the place of eternal punishment of the devil and the damned. That is the word’s modern meaning. But “hell” used to have a broader meaning. It could mean any abode of the dead that wasn’t heaven.
There were four such ‘abodes.’ We all know of the hell of eternal fire. Jesus spoke clearly about it (e.g., Mk 9:42-48). It is also known as hell proper.
But we also believe in another abode for the dead that is not heaven: purgatory. Some people die without mortal sin, but their friendship with God still needs perfecting before they can enter heaven. My brother, Father Rory Pitstick, compares purgatory to a welcome mat: You know you’re invited in to the feast, but you have to brush off any remaining dirt first.
The third non-heavenly abode is for the souls of those who didn’t die in the state of grace, but also hadn’t committed any personal sin. Since any punishment after death depends on a person’s guilt, these souls wouldn’t suffer like those in the hell of the damned. However, because they died without baptism, they also wouldn’t have the beatific vision. This abode is called the limbo of the children. People debate about it a lot, but in the end it is a sign of God’s mercy; after all, no one deserves heaven just because he exists!
The final ‘hell’ was called the limbo of the Fathers. There the souls of the holy people who had died before Christ awaited the completion of His redemptive work. Due to original sin, heaven was closed until Christ would atone for all sin.
This is where his descent to hell comes in. Jesus is truly man, so he died a true human death and went to an abode of the dead. But we need to ask, “To which abode did Christ descend?” He himself was perfectly holy, so he wouldn’t go to the hell of the damned, purgatory, or the limbo of the children. Also, by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ made possible again our union of perfect friendship with God. Thus, after his death, there was no longer any reason for this union to be delayed for the holy dead. Finally, Jesus is also truly God, so he descended to the dead as mankind’s savior.
Hence we get the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s descent: (1) The incarnate Son of God descended in his human soul only to the limbo of the Fathers. (2) Christ gave the holy souls there the beatific vision. (3) Christ’s power and authority were made known not only to the souls of the just, but to all those in the abodes of hell. The rich man suffering in hell proper saw Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:22-25). Likewise, all the dead witnessed Christ’s glorious descent, but only the holy souls in the limbo of the Fathers were set free by it. (4) Christ did not suffer in his descent. He suffered neither waiting (the limbo of the Fathers), nor purification (purgatory), nor the lack of the beatific vision of God (the limbo of the children), nor eternal punishment (hell proper).
In short, Christ descended into hell like a king descends into the prison of a castle he has conquered: He enters in glory, frees those loyal to him, and receives the submission of those who had been in charge (see the parable of the strong man, Mt 12:29).
So, why does Christ’s descent give us joy and hope?
Because those who are now united to God by His grace, who now believe in him and keep his commandments, and who now await his return in glory are in a position similar to that of the holy souls who awaited Christ’s descent in the limbo of the Fathers. If we persevere in friendship with God (which includes seeking reconciliation with him if we fall), then like the souls of the holy dead, we too shall someday see him coming to bring us into his heavenly glory.
(Alyssa H. Pitstick recently completed her doctorate in theology in Rome. Her dissertation on Christ’s descent will be published later this year by Eerdmans.)