Real Questions by Real Parishioners!
What does it mean when we say in the Apostle’s Creed “He descended into hell”?
The difficulty in understanding what it means when we profess that Jesus ‘descended into hell’ revolves around the English word ‘hell’, which we almost always associate with the place of eternal damnation. So how could Jesus go to the place of eternal damnation and then go to heaven; because both of these are supposed to be permanent? You go one way or the other, right?
For further reading I recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 631- 637.
In short, what we mean is that Jesus went to the ‘realm of the dead’. All people who experience death (the separation of the soul from the body) go to the realm of the dead. Jesus descends to this place proclaiming the Good News to the souls there, so that they might not be deprived of the vision of God. This is referred to as ‘sheol’ in Hebrew or ‘hades’ in Greek.
In this place ‘sheol’ both the just and unjust remained. In the Old Testament we see a clear distinction made between where the good reside in ‘sheol’ (realm of the dead) and where the bad reside. Think of the parable of Lazarus and the poor man and how there was an impassable chasm (or abyss) between the two. The section for the unjust was named “gehenna” where the souls would suffer eternal torment by fire.
Once Jesus Christ proclaimed the Good News we can use the word ‘hell’ to refer specifically to what before Christ was called “gehenna” and heaven is … well heaven.
John 5:25 teaches that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” It wouldn’t be fair if those who lived before Jesus didn’t have a chance to hear the Good News and be saved so even they have a chance to ‘hear’ and be saved.
Now the after life is different as we live in the Messianic Age or post-Resurrection. Hell we use to refer specifically to that place where eternal damnation is; heaven is eternal bliss in the vision of God. Souls who are not completely purified must go through a purgation for “nothing unclean will ever enter heaven” (Revelation 21:27). We refer to this as ‘purgatory’.
“Oh yea”, you say to yourself, “what about Purgatory, what is that? I thought we don’t believe that anymore?” Stay tuned next week.