Catholic Teaching


Christ's Descent into Hell
by Patricia Johnson


Early Christians believed the just who died before the coming of Christ awaited redemption in a shadowy existence, referred to in the Old Testament as Sheol. This belief is alluded to in First Peter 3:18:22, where their dwelling is described as a prison. The statement in the Apostles' Creed: "He descended into "Hell" refers to this belief. The statement expressed our faith that after His death but before his resurrection, Jesus went to announce to those in this 'prison' they had been saved and were invited to heavenly life. That this shadowy existence was really not equivalent to Hell is part of our theology of life after death today. That is why, recently, the translation of the Apostles' Creed has been changed to read "He descended to the dead."

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 633), Scripture calls the abode of the dead to which Christ went down, "hell" - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God (Phillipians 2:10, Acts 2:24, Revelations 1:18, Ephesians 4:9, Psalms 6:6, 88:11-13). Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man, Lazarus, who was received into "Abraham's bosom" (Psalm 89:49, 1 Samuel 28:19, Ezekiel 32:17-32, Luke 16:22-26). It is precisely these holy souls who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom whom Christ the Lord delivered when He descended into hell. Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before Him (Council of Rome, 745).


The Gospel was preached even to the dead (1 Peter 4:6). The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption (CCC 634).

The English word "hell" is used to describe two different places in the Bible. The first, referred to in the Apostle's Creed, is "Hades" (Revelations 20:14) or the "abode of the dead," the place where Christ spoke to the spirits in prison after His death (1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6). This first hell is also known as the "limbo of the fathers." The more commonly known "hell of damnation" (or "Gehenna") is the place where those who die in a state of mortal sin go, eternally separated by self-exclusion from God and the blessed. Hades was emptied after Christ's descent, with the just going to heaven and the wicked going to the eternal hell. Hades is known today as Purgatory, where God purifies the saved sinner so that he can live in heaven with the Blessed Trinity (Revelations 21:27; 1 Corinthians 3:15).


In his 'Summa Theologiae,' St. Thomas Aquinas divides hell into four parts: 1) purgatory (purgatorium), where sinners experience penal suffering; 2) the hell of the patriarchs (infernum patrum), the abode of the Old Testament righteous before the coming of Christ; 3) the hell of unbaptized children (infernum puerorum); and 4) the hell of the damned (infernum damnatorum). In response to the question, exactly which was the hell that Christ descended to, St. Thomas Aquinas admits two possibilities: Christ descended either into all parts of hell or only to that in which the righteous were imprisoned, whom He was to deliver. In the first case, "for going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin (pro solo peccato originali detinebantur in inferno), He shed the light of glory everlasting." In the second case, the soul of Christ "descended only to the place where the righteous were detained" (descendit solum ad locum inferni in quo justi detinebantur), but the action of His presence there was felt in some way in the other parts of hell as well (Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 2).


In traditional Byzantine iconography, the icon of the Descent Into Hades (also called the icon of The Harrowing of Hell) shows Jesus as the Giver of Life, sometimes shown with a cross in His hand, vested in white and gold to symbolize His divine majesty. His appearance in Hades is not as its captive, but as its conqueror. He is shown with a radiant halo, the symbol of glory. His garments are no longer those in which He was seen on earth, but are brilliant as they illumine the darkness of Hades. His presence in Hades shows that He took upon Himself every humility and degradation of mankind. Our Lord's entrance into Hades, into the depths of the earth, transforms it. Through death He entered the realm of Hades, which in the icon is shown by a black, gaping abyss.

In the icon, Christ is seen trampling the gates of Hades (also called the Doors of Death), which are broken and have fallen in the form of a cross, illustrating the belief that by His death on the cross, Jesus trampled down death. He is holding Adam and Eve (viewed as a symbol of the entire human race), pulling them up out of Hades and drawing them to life. Traditionally He is shown holding them not by the hands, but by their wrists, to illustrate the theological teaching that mankind could not pull himself out of his ancestral sin, but that this could come about only by the work (energia) of God.


Having broken the bonds of Death's power and freeing our first parents, Christ also frees those who put their faith in His coming. In the icon, Jesus is surrounded by various righteous figures from the Old Testament including David and Solomon, vested in royal robes and crowns. These stand together with John the Baptist, Abraham, Moses and the Prophets of the Old Testament. With them, all of humanity is raised.


The bottom of the icon depicts Hades as a chasm of darkness, often with various pieces of broken locks, bolts, keys and chains strewn about to signify the freeing of those held captive and the breaking of Death's hold over men. Quite frequently, one or two figures are shown in the darkness, bound in chains, who are generally identified as personifications of Death and/or the Devil.


This icon image is a reflection of the Resurrection Matins: "Although You descended into the grave, O Immortal One, You destroyed Hades' power. You arose as a victor, O Christ God. You exclaimed to the myrrh-bearing women: Rejoice! You gave peace to Your apostles, and granted resurrection to the fallen."

Resurrection Troparion: Christ is risen from the dead! By death He conquered Death, and to those in the graves, He granted life!


Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other (CCC 1160).


Patricia M. Johnson is a Catholic homeschooling mother who, along with her husband Robert, has been blessed with six children, ages three to sixteen years. She and her family live in Morgantown, WV, where they attend St. Mary's Holy Protection Byzantine Catholic Church. She earned a Masters Degree in Early Intervention (Special Education Birth to Five Years Old) from West Virginia University.


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