I have always been intrigued by the article of the Apostle’s Creed which states that Christ ‘descended into hell’. But what does it mean and what hope does it offer?
In Christian Tradition, Christ’s descent into hell has been understood in terms of his going down into the world of the dead to offer the just the fruits of his resurrection and victory over death. By ‘hell’ was meant the place of the dead, occupied by those deprived of the vision of God.
By really dying, Jesus entered into solidarity with all who had died and in that place, he brought the light of his salvation as ‘the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor. 15:20). With this article of faith, the Church proclaims her hope for all who have died. This is the faith of the Church celebrated on Holy Saturday. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
‘The gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. 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’ (para. 634).
With his descent into hell, our natural fear of death is broken by Jesus. Though all of us have to died sometime, death loses its power because ‘Christ died and rose again so that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living’ (Rom. 14:9). This is the heart of our Easter faith explained best by St Paul who insists that because of the resurrection, not even death ‘can separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:38-39).
However, in the last century, some theologians have interpreted the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell in a novel way. For Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Christ certainly descended into hell after his death but he also experienced the terrible reality of hell before his death on the cross as he cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). This means that on the cross, Jesus experienced the full and terrible weight of apparent abandonment by the Father. Because Jesus freely bore our sins out of love on the cross, he was inflicted with the full reality of sin in all its naked horror. This is what St Paul meant when he explained to the Corinthians that God ‘made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor. 5:20-21). If sin is separation from God, then on the cross, Jesus knew what it meant to be utterly separated from God – an experience that caused him to cry out from the bottom of his soul in terrible anguish. In this sense, von Balthasar explains, Christ descended into hell, not just after his death but before it too.
To help us better grasp this mystery, I am reminded of a true story of a young Italian boy who went missing for a number of days and after a frantic search, was found injured but alive having fallen half-way down a disused well near his home. In their attempts to rescue the boy, workers descended the well to where the boy was trapped but every time they would approach the place where he was, he would fall further down the deep pit. This was the dilemma until someone suggested the idea of digging a channel parallel to the well but deeper than where the boy was, and then digging across to the well and rescuing the boy from underneath. This was successful and eventually, the child was brought to the surface where he was joyfully reunited with his parents.
I believe that this rescue mission of the young boy gives us a greater insight into the mystery of Jesus’ descent into hell where he plummeted the depths of human suffering - deeper than anyone could go in order to reach and save the most lost, most abandoned and sinners furthest away from God. By descending into hell, God in the person of Jesus, places the worst that can befall human beings within the saving embrace of the cross.
The implications of this redemptive power of God are immense. With modern communications and our knowledge of history, we are familiar with horrific examples of man’s inhumanity to man in wars, murders, the horrors of torture, human trafficking and many more examples of depravity inflicted on human lives. Despite how incomprehensible and dark these stains on our history have been, their victims have new hope because of Christ’s descent into hell. The worst cruelty of humanity has been endured by God himself and has been conquered by the best of God’s mercy, made possible by Jesus’ descent into the depths of human darkness and despair. Such was the depths of God’s love that he sent his beloved Son to suffer with and for those who had strayed furthest away in order to include them in the life-giving embrace of God and raise them up to new hope.
Yet Jesus’ descent into hell is not just a theological theory. Only a few weeks ago, a woman of faith in my parish who had lost both her parents in two months, spoke of her grief as causing her to sink into a dark pit of loneliness, depression and fear. Now, with God’s grace, she speaks of slowly seeing light again and of finding a new purpose in life. To the sick, the dying, the broken in spirit, the lonely, the unloved, the tortured, the victims of violence and wars, the wounded in body and spirit - to all who have descended into their own hell -from the cross Jesus offers us fresh hope by telling us: ‘You are not alone: I went down into that hell before you in my suffering in order to help you up through yours’.
St Therese of Lisieux once wrote that: ‘in order that love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that it lower itself’ (Story of a Soul). By his suffering and death on the cross, this is what the love of Jesus did – it lowered itself, even to the depths of hell. Out of love for all humanity, both living and dead, our crucified God plummeted the depths of anguish in order to save the lost and raise them back to Himself. On the cross he bridged the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. At Easter time we thank him from our hearts for including us in such an embrace of mercy. Because of Christ’s descent into hell, no one is beyond the reach of God’s unfathomable love.