He Descended into Hell

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


He Descended Into Hell

ROME, JUNE 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I was extremely happy with the new translation of the Apostles' Creed, which became somehow official in the times of Pope John Paul II. Why has it been removed in the new English translation of the Roman Missal (African edition)? This is what I recall of the new translation, which I like very much for its simplicity and good English: 'I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.' I remember some explanations of the changes in respect to the older version: 'conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,' 'descended to the dead,' etc. Please correct me if I am wrong. I prefer this to the previous one. Why should we go back to mentioning "hell," if many people need so many explanations of what "hell" means in this context? — A.D., Nairobi, Kenya

A: The text of the Apostles' Creed as found in the new translation of the missal is the following:

"I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen."

Before addressing the question of translation I think it worthwhile to comment on the change in the rubrics with regard to the use of the Apostles' Creed in the liturgy of the Mass.

Before the publication of the new Latin missal in 2001 the Apostles' Creed was little used for Mass. The rubrics allowed its use in Masses for Children. There were also some countries whose bishops' conferences had requested and received permission to use it on other occasions. Indeed, as a consequence, in some cases the use of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed almost disappeared.

The third edition of the Roman Missal gave a general permission to use the Apostles' Creed on some occasions. The present rubric says, "Instead of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, especially during Lent and Easter Time, the baptismal Symbol of the Roman Church, known as the Apostles' Creed, may be used."

This broadened use is perhaps one reason why a newer and more accurate translation was sought.

Our reader states that he prefers the earlier version and especially considers the return of the expression "descended into hell" as less felicitous than "descended to the dead," due to the need for an explanation of the terms.

I would contend that perhaps the need for an explanation is precisely why the translation should be accurate and actually offers an occasion to illustrate the wealth of Catholic teaching.

This can be seen at work in the English version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In No. 197 the Catechism offers the translation that is preferred by our reader and that was provided for liturgical use for Children's Masses at the time of publication.

However, when in Nos. 631-636 the Catechism comes to explain this passage it ignores the liturgical translation and translates the Creed literally, "He descended into hell"; to wit:

"631. Jesus 'descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens.' The Apostles' Creed confesses in the same article Christ's descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth: Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

"632. The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was 'raised from the dead' presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.

"633. Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, 'hell' — Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek — because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into 'Abraham's bosom': '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.

"634. 'The gospel was preached even to the dead.' 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.

"635. Christ went down into the depths of death so that 'the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.' Jesus, 'the Author of life,' by dying destroyed 'him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.' Henceforth the risen Christ holds 'the keys of Death and Hades,' so that 'at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.'

"Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. … He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him — He who is both their God and the son of Eve. … 'I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. … I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.'"

Thus, while the concept of descending to the dead is easier, it loses the contrast between descending into hell and ascending into heaven as well as the scriptural underpinnings of the Apostles' Creed.

The liturgy will always require some mediation and explanation in order that the faithful may grasp its full richness.

* * *

Follow-up: "He Descended Into Hell" [7-10-2012]

The June 26 column on the Apostles' Creed brought to mind several other questions from readers. For example: "Both the Nicene and the Apostles' creeds state in English that 'on the third day, he rose again.' This again seems to imply that Jesus rose more than once from the dead. In the Latin, French and other languages it is stated that 'On the third day he rose from the dead.' Period. Please clarify."

This is simply a foible of English grammar that is not found in all languages. It does not necessarily mean that the action was done before. For example, if we say: "Peter was walking in the woods, he tripped on a root and fell face down. With a groan, and rubbing his nose, he got up again." His getting up again does not imply that he had fallen more than once.

This English construction is also used in the King James and other translations of the New Testament in referring to Christ's resurrection.

For example, take Matthew 20:18-19: "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again" (this is repeated in Mark 10:33-34 and Luke 18:31-33).

Also, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: "For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures."

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