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Home : Faith/Spirituality : The Question Box
9/25/2012 9:02:00 AM
What of Christ's descent into Hell?

Deacon Owen Cummings


Q — Why isn’t there much said about Christ’s three day descent into Hell, after the crucifixion?

A — In his 1968 commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, makes this statement about Christ’s descent into hell: “Possibly no article of the Creed is so far from present-day attitudes of mind as this one.” The very words lend themselves to misunderstanding — “He descended into hell.” In terms of the broad Christian tradition, a fair amount has been said and written about the creedal affirmation of Christ’s descent into hell. But we need to be as clear as we can about its meaning. Like our Blessed Lord’s ascension into heaven, his descent into hell is best understood along the lines of a metaphor, a metaphor that reflects the way of thinking about the cosmos in antiquity. Under the earth, in that ancient way of thinking, there is a vast cavern, as it were, into which all humankind went after death. Thus, the “hell” in question in this creedal statement is not the hell of the damned, not a place of punishment, but simply what we might call the “resting place” of all the dead. One Catholic thinker, Lionel Swain, has put it very well indeed: “If his descent into hell is a vivid expression of the reality of (Jesus’) death, his ascension from hell is a brilliant revelation of his triumph over death… By descending into hell and ascending from it, therefore, Jesus has destroyed the kingdom of death and has opened up the way of life for humanity.”

Both his descent into hell and his ascension into heaven are metaphorical ways of saying that no place whatsoever is outside the sphere of Jesus’ presence and influence.

Because of the event of Jesus, says Joseph Ratzinger, “death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.”



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