Christ's Descent Into Hell and His Resurrection

Author: Fr. William G. Most

After His death, the soul of Jesus, still united to the divinity, descended into the realm of the dead, which the Creed calls "hell", in the old English usage. It does not mean at all the hell of the damned. He visited what is called the Limbo of the Fathers. For the just, who had died in the state of grace, and had paid all the debt of their sins, were still not admitted to the vision of God until Jesus had died.

When a soul reaches the vision of God, by that vision, it knows all that pertains to it on earth. But without that vision, it would not know any of these things, unless God might decide to give a special revelation. Of course, then, the afterlife was very different then from what it is now. So we can understand some otherwise strange texts in the Old Testament. Job 7. 9-10 says that the dead one "does not return to his house." Of course not, the resurrection will be not a return to the present mode of life. Psalm 6:6 asks "who in Sheol can praise you?" Sheol is the realm of the dead. The Psalmist is thinking of the grand liturgical praise of God, which the Hebrews really loved. That liturgical praise of course is not found in Sheol. In Isaiah 38:19 we read that "those who go down to the pit cannot hope for God's fidelity." The "fidelity" means God's faithful keeping of His covenant promises. Those in Sheol cannot appeal to the covenant. Qoheleth 9:10 says there is no work in Sheol--of course not. It says there is no knowledge--that is, of what goes on on earth.

Jesus came to take them out of that drab and dull place. Then there was fulfilled what St. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:9-10: "God exalted Him and gave to Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth." This can also refer to the power of Jesus over Satan. The passage is poetic, and so need not mean that Sheol is under the earth.

Jesus rose from the dead, as He had foretold in John 2:19-22, and elsewhere. Sometimes Scripture says He rose, that is, by His own power. In as much as He is God, this is true. It also says the Father raised Him: this is true, thinking of His human nature.

So many witnesses saw Him after this resurrection, for example we have an enumeration of them in First Corinthians 15:5-8.

How can we arrange in plausible order the events after His resurrection? In more than one way, e.g., : 1) Magdalen and other women come to the tomb at dawn, and see it is empty, 2) In excitement she or they run to the Apostles (Matthew here, between 20:8 &9, omits the visit of Peter and John, our item 3), 3) Peter and John do not believe but do run to the tomb, and see it empty. They do not see Jesus, 4) Peter and John leave, Magdalen then sees Him, takes Him for the gardener; He makes himself known, 5) Jesus appears to Peter, 6) He appears to two men on road to Emmaus, 7) They go back to the Apostles, hear Peter had seen Him, 8) He appears to the Eleven, gives them the power to forgive sins. 9) Thomas was absent, Jesus comes again, 10) Further appearances at Lake of Galilee.

Taken from The Basic Catholic Catechism
PART THREE: The Apostles' Creed II - V
Fifth Article: "He descended into hell, the third day He rose again from the dead"

By Rev. William G. Most. (c)Copyright 1990 by William G. Most

Related Q and A

95. What do we mean when we say in the Apostles' Creed that Christ descended Into hell?

When we say that Christ descended into hell we mean that, after He died, the soul of Christ descended into a place or state of rest, called limbo, where the souls of the just were waiting for Him.

(a) Heaven had been closed by the sin of Adam. The just among the dead could not enter heaven until Christ satisfied for man's sin and repaired its injuries. They awaited their redemption in limbo.

96. Why did Christ go to limbo?

Christ went to limbo to announce to the souls waiting there the joyful news that He had reopened heaven to mankind.

97. Where was Christ's body while His soul was in limbo?

While His soul was in limbo, Christ's body was in the holy sepulchre.

(a) Man dies when soul is separated from body. When Jesus died, His soul and His body were separated from each other but His divine Person remained united both to His body in the tomb and to His separated soul in limbo.

98. When did Christ rise from the dead?

Christ rose from the dead, glorious and immortal, on Easter Sunday, the third day after His death.

(a) In the Resurrection the soul of Jesus was reunited to His body by His own divine power.

(b) The Resurrection is the most important of Christ's miracles. He Himself chose it as the most conclusive proof of His divine mission, and the apostles appealed to it to confirm the truth of their testimony.

(c) Christ's glorified body after its Resurrection was not subject to suffering or death; it possessed a certain radiance Bowing from the supreme blessedness of His soul, it could move rapidly from place to place, it did not need food or sleep, and it could pass through other bodies.

99. Why did Christ rise from the dead?

Christ rose from the dead to show that He is true God and to teach us that we, too, shall rise from the dead.

100. Will all men rise from the dead?

All men will rise from the dead, but only those who have been faithful to Christ will share in His glory.

Taken from The Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 8.