In the Apostles' Creed, it says Jesus "descended into hell" after he was crucified. What does that mean?
This month with Fr. Jonathan Woodhall
One of the many advantages of my Catholic School education was learning formal prayers early in life. Like any kid I asked "why" when I didn't understand something. Maybe it was about the second grade that I asked Sister why Jesus went to hell when he was supposed to be so good. Remember the words in the Apostles' Creed: "and he descended into hell."
I don't remember her reaction but I remember her saying that those words simply meant he really died and then rose again to life on the third day.
Over time I learned about the phenomenon of translation. "Hell" was an early English translation of the Hebrew word "Sheol" meaning the place of the dead. The Romans used the word "Hades" to signify the same idea. Later on through the centuries the word "hell" took on the meaning of a state of being for the condemned. That's how we understand "hell" today, but not when the Creed was first translated into English. Some English translations of this phrase use: "He descended to the dead."
Sister's original response was very theologically correct, I found out later in life when I studied the developing doctrines of the early Church. There were some people who were finally declared heretics who said Jesus did not die but only seemed to die. They held that because Jesus was divine, he really wasn't a human being and, therefore, he couldn't suffer or die. However, the faith that was handed down to us first by word of mouth and contained in what we term "apostolic tradition" and then finally written down in Scripture, held that Jesus was true God and true man.
In Scripture we have the preaching of Peter in Acts 2, which sets forth the belief that Jesus really died and rose that all might be saved. The first letter of Peter, Chapter 3:18-19 and 4:6 contain the traditions that Jesus preached to the dead. While his body lay in the tomb, the soul of Jesus descended to those in the grave where Jesus proclaimed the Good News to all who had come before him in the history of God's love for his creation.
Because art is able to convey a different kind of truth, we can look to iconography to understand spiritual meanings. In the Christian tradition of the eastern Roman Empire, today cherished both by Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics, there is a particularly famous image of Christ preaching to the dead after his death and before his resurrection. It shows Christ breaking through the rocks, extending his hand to Adam and Eve, with images of all the great Hebrew prophets and kings in the background of the icon.
St. John of Damascus in the 8th century, one of the last great theologians of the formative doctrinal centuries (4th-9th) called the Patristic Age of the Church, wrote that we should understand that even as Jesus shone on this earth as the Sun of Righteousness, he went to Hades to shine on those under the curse of death. Even as he brought the message of peace to those who lived while he walked this earth, Jesus gave that same message to the dead, fulfilling the words of Philippians 2:10: "...so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend to him in heaven, on earth and under the earth..."
Yet another way of looking at the descent into hell is given in a homily attributed to St. Makarios of Egypt in the 4th century. He writes that when we hear about Christ preaching to the dead, we should think of ourselves. The homily calls our heart a tomb where our thoughts and intellect are imprisoned in heavy darkness. Christ lifts the heavy stone that oppresses the soul who calls upon him and releases the soul from darkness. The homily ends with these words: "...What was the purpose of his descent to earth except to save sinners, to bring light to those in darkness and life to the dead." (The Philokalia, vol. III (1984) London, p. 337)
Jesus' life, death and resurrection affect all people: past, present and to come. Far from being just a brittle formula, doctrine allows us to reflect and then to experience God in different and perhaps fuller ways as we grown in age and spiritual maturity. Living our lives with the resurrected Lord breaks open our minds, hearts and actions to life instead of death.
Fr. Jonathan Woodhall is Parochial Vicar of Sacred Heart Cathedral, Raleigh.