In one of the symbols of the faith, the Apostles Creed, it states ” He [Jesus Christ] descended into hell.” Was this the literal hell we all hear so much about for the damned or was it a different place?
Much has been said about this verse. Using the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 632-637) and the Compendium of the Catechism (paragraph 125) we’ll establish well-rounded background information to help clarify this common misconception about an ambiguous phrase in the creed.
2 Eternal Destinations
When we discuss Last Things, there are only 2 places ultimately we all can go. Heaven or hell.
Heaven is where the faithful can experience perfect beatitude, happiness, with the Holy Trinity. Essentially, its eternal happiness where we are surrounded by angels, the saints, and Mary. The original design that Adam fractured is again made anew for us that seek to know and Love God. In this eternal state, man is in communion with the Holy Trinity; in addition, man can embrace the greatness of the beatific vision, the splendor, and joy of knowing intimacy with the God.
On the contrary, hell is for those that willingly chose to deny God’s invitation to fellowship and obedience. It’s not a place that God has destined humans to enter before their birth, but instead a place that humans make a choice to enter in. Heaven is happiness and beatific vision; on the contrary, hell is an absence of love and happiness. Heaven is an eternal fellowship with God; on the other hand, hell is a eternal isolation from the awe-inspiring joy of God.
Definition of Terms
When hell is being used in both treatments to refer to the place of the abode of the dead. These inhabitants could be righteous or sinners. These people in this state are deprived of God.
In Hebrew the word “Sheol” and Greek word “hades” convey this world for these dead individuals. Also, in the new testament “Gehenna” is translated for hell to convey a similar realm for those departed souls.
What the Creed Actually Means
When we combine ALL of what’s been said we actually come up with a very great explanation that reveals the extent of God’s mercy.
When Jesus died, his death was surely a literal death. He descended into hell, place for departed beings, to reveal his saving plan to those awaiting their Redeemer. He didn’t go into hell to free those that were awaiting punishment, but instead gave the light of salvation to the just that awaited his coming. St. Peter notes that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel to the imprisoned spirits (1 Pet 3:19). Jesus did this so that those waiting in anticipation could have the doors of heaven opened for them.
Thankfully, as the creed continues we learn that Jesus ascended into glorification to the Father. Therefore, death had totally lost its power over Jesus in the Resurrection.
It’s so great and full of joy to hear that God’s message of salvation extends beyond the living and reaches the dead. Truly, it is a message that seeks to be inclusive as possible leaving no one behind.