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New book by Spokane theologian examines Christ’s descent into hell
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Sept. 13, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, of Spokane’s St. Charles Parish, is a both a theologian with advanced degrees from the Angelicum in Rome and the International Theological Institute in Austria, and a graduate of Gonzaga University.
Recently, the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, published Dr. Pitstick’s doctoral dissertation under the title Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent Into Hell.
“The book has two parts,” Dr. Pitstick said. “One has to do with the Catholic doctrine and the Catholic tradition, and the second part has to do with the theology of a theologian named Hans Urs von Balthasar – so certainly the most applicable to the ordinary person is the (part on) the Catholic tradition.”
The tradition of the descent of Christ into hell, Dr. Pitstick said, has two applications. “First and foremost is that what Christ does in his descent is a prefiguration, or pre-imaging, of what, ultimately, will happen to us. So descending to the holy dead after his crucifixion, Christ brings them the light of heaven. This is even before he rises bodily from the dead, before the general resurrection. What makes them the recipients of this is that they have been waiting for him, they believed in the Messiah who was to come. They were hoping for him, they were united to God by love, so in this way they prefigure our situation right now. So hopefully right now we believe in Christ, we are hoping for his coming, we love him, we are living out that love in good works, and we hope that one day Christ will come for us, as well, to lead us into heaven. So that would happen perfectly at the Second Coming, but it happens to each of us individually at the moment of our own death. So what happens to (the holy dead at Christ’s descent after his death) gives us hope because we see in them what happens to the church, and so we have hope for ourselves.”
The origins of the tradition that Christ descended into hell following his crucifixion and before his Resurrection are both Scriptural and present in sacred tradition, Dr. Pitstick said. “There is a common misconception that it’s not Scriptural,” she said. “If we look at words like ... ‘Trinity,’ it’s not going to be in Scripture, and it’s the same thing with Christ’s descent. The closest explicit expression that we have is in the First Letter of Peter (3:18-4:6), in a very controverted passage that not everyone agrees about (with regard to) its meaning. But the early Fathers of the Church took it to be a reference to Christ’s descent. It talks about Christ going in spirit to preach to the spirits that were in prison.”
A relevant passage also occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, Dr. Pitstick said. “At the crucifixion of Christ, after his death, it says that the veil was rent in two, and there is this great earthquake, and it says: ‘After Jesus’ death the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose, and coming out of the tombs after his Resurrection came into the holy city and appeared to many’ (27:51-53). This is an important Scriptural testimony. So Matthew makes sort of a distinction about the bodies (rising) and then the bodies coming out of the tomb at Christ’s Resurrection. So there is actually a very ancient tradition, coupled with Christ’s descent, that says that Christ descended into hell, (and) for those three days he was with the souls of the holy just, and then many of them actually rose with him at his Resurrection, as well, and were taken up into heaven bodily, as well, because Christ is the first born of many brethren. So Matthew seems to be a testament to that, as well.”
Also, Dr. Pitstick said, there are relevant passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, but in order to understand this we need to understand how Catholics look at Scripture. “There is this idea of typology,” she said, “that things in the Old Testament prefigure things in Christ’s life, and here we have many, many important references. One would be God’s rest on the Sabbath after creation, and this is applied in the life of Christ where, after recreating man in the blood of his cross, he has a rest, a Sabbath rest of holy Saturday. Or again, we have the cases in which God’s special elect are preserved in a dangerous situation –Daniel in the lions’ den, Joseph who is thrown into the well, Jeremiah who is thrown into a well, Jonah in the belly of the whale, the three men in the firey furnace who are seen walking with one (who is) the Son of God.”
There are also, Dr. Pitstick said, Old Testament images that would apply to the church. “So we have the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan (River) dry-shod. God’s chosen people are preserved through the waters of death, and those waters then consume their enemies, the charioteers of Pharaoh, for example, and the correspondence with Christ’s descent into hell then, of course, is the souls of the holy dead being led into the Promised Land, heaven, by Christ.”
Sources from sacred tradition also refer to Christ’s descent into hell – for example, the Apostles’ Creed (“…he descended into hell…”). Some contemporary theological commentaries explain this as the creed’s way of emphasizing that Jesus really and truly did experience death, rather than as a statement to be taken a face value. “Unfortunately,” says Dr. Pitstick, “(this) is a sort of modern reduction of the doctrine. In the creed nothing is superfluous. It says that Christ died, he was buried, and that he descended into hell – so what’s going on there? It does testify to Christ’s real death, because as a true man his body went into the tomb, so his soul had to go to an abode of the dead souls, and this is what Christ’s descent into hell is telling us. So we have to ask, How does his soul go there? And then you look at the tradition of the church, and you have things, and you have other doctrines such as Christ being sinless. It would make no sense for him to suffer eternal punishment. He’s the Lord, he’s the creator of the underworld as well as the heavens, so he goes there, so to speak, to take possession of his reign of the underworld. Then at his ascension he takes possession of the heavens, and at the second coming he’ll take possession of the earth.”
The doctrine of the descent of Christ into hell between his crucifixion and Resurrection is very deeply rooted in the church’s faith, Dr. Pitstick said. “It’s a doctrine, the ancient origins of which are testified to in Scripture. It was universally believed in Christianity both east and west up to the Reformation (in the 16th century).”
Dr. Pitstick’s brother, Father Rory Pitstick, is pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish, Okanogan, and administrator of the parishes in Oroville and Tonasket.
(Dr. Alyssa Pitstick’s Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell is published in both hardcover ($55) and paperback ($35) by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Mich.)