Jesus Descent Into Hell Explained

A number of parishioners have asked the significance in the Apostle’s Creed of the statement “He descended into hell….” Here is an excellent explanation by a wonderful priest friend, Father Joe Fortuna, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake in Euclid, Ohi0:

 Since the beginning of the Year of Faith, we have been reciting the Apostles’ Creed at Mass rather than the Nicene Creed to which we had become accustomed. It seemed to me that since Bishop Lennon has asked everyone to pray the Apostles’ Creed daily during this special year, it would make sense (and be less confusing) to use the same text of the creed for our liturgical prayer.

 Some have asked about the meaning of the line, “he descended into hell.” One person was confused because he had been taught that once a person goes to hell, it is for eternity. Another was just confused, probably for a similar reason. If some have these questions, I’m certain others do as well.

 I did a little research and discovered that on January 11, 1989, Pope John Paul II had a general audience during which he addressed the meaning of this statement. I would like to summarize below some of the content of his address.

 John Paul II points out that in the condition of being truly human, Jesus experienced completely what we experience, including death. (That he was sinless is of course without question.) Insofar as some in antiquity questioned whether Jesus really had in fact died and been buried, the Pope points out that Jesus’ death is an article of faith. It is another way of saying that he was completely and truly human.

 The Pope also pointed out that even though some heretics used the same line in their writings, it was introduced into orthodox professions of faith at the end of the fourth century. It entered definitively into the teaching of ecumenical councils at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Second Council of Lyons (1274).

 The Pope makes very clear that the word “hell” in this statement does not mean the hell of eternal damnation. Rather, it refers to the abode of the dead which is sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek. He spends much of his audience explaining how the line is derived from many New Testament texts, (even though the exact line is not to be found there).

 “During the three (incomplete) days between the moment when he [Jesus] “expired” and the resurrection, he experienced the ‘state of death’…This is the primary meaning of the words ‘he descended into hell’.”

 Another important meaning is associated with the conviction that all who preceded Jesus and died before the historical event of the death of Christ are nevertheless saved through the event of Christ’s death and resurrection. His descent into hell is a way of saying that the word of the Gospel and of the cross reaches all, even those belonging to the most distant generations of the past.

Many thanks to Father Joe Fortuna for allowing me to reprint his explanation in its entirety.

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