Article 56 Paragraphs 631-635
Father John G. Hillier
The Psalmist asks: “Who is the man that shall live and not see death?” Psalm 88:49.
The fear of death is common to almost all people. What is death? Why do we have to die? What happens when we die? How should we face death?
Death means that the soul is separated from the body. The two were meant to be together. That is how God planned it. But our faith teaches that the disobedience of Adam and Eve brought death as one of its punishments. Death is the result of their original sin.
Jesus was obedient even to the point of death. Did his soul separate from his body or was he saved from that? Where did Jesus go during his three days in the tomb? The words in the creed say, “He descended to the dead.” Other translations have it: “He descended into hell.” Does this mean he went to see Satan?
I recall getting a shiver up my spine the first time I heard the words “He descended into hell” spoken by someone leading a public recitation of the rosary. My first inclination was to ask, “why would Jesus go to hell?”
To state upfront, the phrase “He descended into hell” does not mean that Jesus went to the place of demons, Beelzebub, the Devil or any of the damned in the depths of hell. Rather, the word “hell” – “Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek” (ccc 633) – in the context of “Jesus descending into hell,” means that he “sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection” (ccc 632). He went to the underworld or the abode of the dead where all the just who had previously died were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. “This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission” (ccc 634). The Catechism reminds us that Jesus descended to this place of the dead “as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (ccc 632). As Saint Peter puts it: “The gospel was preached even to the dead” (1 Peter 4:6). As such, “the descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (ccc 634). His descent was “the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission” (ccc 634). It is “a phase,” the Catechism tells us, “which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance” (ccc 634). It underlines the truth that “the spread of Christ’s redemptive work (is meant for all people) of all times and all places” (ccc 634).
Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:19) likewise affirms the ideas outlined in these Catechism passages: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended into the lower [regions] of the earth?” (Ephesians 4:9). The fact that Jesus “descended into hell” after His death means that He went there to rescue the saints of the Old Testament and to proclaim judgment on those who refused to live in a manner consistent with the natural law.
In the preface of the funeral Mass the following is prayed: “In Him, Who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for Your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”
By Christ’s descent into hell, this hope of resurrection was realized for those who had died before Jesus, the eternal Word of God who became flesh and made His dwelling place among us. Christ “in his human soul united to his divine person … went down to the realm of the dead (and) opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone (or died) before him” (ccc 637).
The Catechism affirms: “Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death” (ccc 636). Therefore, though death is the end of earthly life, we believe that because Christ “conquered death,” life for us changes but does not end at death. There is no death for the living soul that is set on the road to eternal life at the moment of conception. The body and soul will one day be reunited and live together forever. Death is the beginning of an endless existence that will be inexpressibly happy or unspeakably miserable.
As the old adage suggests – the same words are written on the entrance to heaven and on the gates of hell: “Forever! Never!” How long will happiness in heaven last? Forever! When will this happiness end? Never! How long will the misery in hell last? Forever! When will this misery end? Never!
An ancient Holy Saturday homily summarizes the tenderness of Christ’s descent into hell:
“Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son … And grasping their hand he raises them up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’”