The Apostles’ Creed contains a remarkable statement that would astonish us if familiarity had not dulled our senses. In the fourth paragraph of the Creed, we are told that Jesus descended into hell.
In this article, I will review the basis for this claim and what, in the context of the Apostles’ Creed, is meant by Hell. Finally, I will examine the purpose of Jesus’ descent into hell.
What is the basis of the claim?
The Apostles’ Creed was primarily composed to combat heresies and defend the Catholic faith. As such, it is apologetic in nature.
As for the statement in the Creed that Jesus descended into hell, it seems to be based on the words of the apostle Peter. In 1 Peter 3:18-19 we read, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unjust, that he might lead you unto God. Slain in the flesh; he was brought back to life in the spirit. He also went there to preach to the spirits in prison.
It therefore follows from Scripture that the Catholic Church affirms that Jesus experienced death. For this reason, the Catechism of the Catholic Church places Jesus’ descent into hell in a broader context: of the dead before his Resurrection. This is the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, knew death and, in his soul, joined the others in the kingdom of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, announcing the Good News to the spirits who were imprisoned there” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 632).
In conclusion, we can see that Jesus, in his human nature, experienced death, and in his human and divine nature, descended into the abode of the dead, into a place called Sheol.
A place called Sheol
The Hebrew word Sheol refers to the place where those who had died were supposed to reside. Contrary to the Christian conception of hell, however, Sheol was initially considered the abode of all the dead, whether righteous or not. However, this view would change, and in Jesus’ time, Judaism generally believed that Sheol was the place for the righteous dead. For this reason it became known as Abraham’s bosom, probably because Abraham was considered the father of the Jewish people. To die was therefore to return to one’s ancestors.
The development of the doctrine that Sheol was a place for the righteous dead brought it into line with the Christian view of God’s judgment on individual souls at the time of death. Significantly, it also placed Sheol in contrast to Hades. The Greek word underworld conforms to the English translation of Hell.
It would, however, be a mistake to regard Sheol as heaven. In Jewish tradition, Sheol is described as a place of darkness where souls wait in silence. This concept of expectation can be deduced from the Jewish liturgy relating to Sheol. In the prayer called Shemoneh Esreh, those of Sheol are called “sleepers in the dust.”
Compare Sheol with the Catholic understanding of heaven as the place and condition of perfect supernatural happiness based on beatific vision, first, and creature knowledge, love, and enjoyment second. From a Catholic perspective, Sheol was where the righteous dead went to await the coming of Christ.
This excursion into Jewish theology provides a framework for understanding the statement in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus descended into hell. If we understand Hell in the context of Sheol, we have some understanding of Jesus’ descent. Yet we must ask ourselves why was it necessary for Jesus to descend to hell? To this question I pass next.
Why did Jesus enter hell?
To properly answer why Jesus entered hell, it helps to place the question within the larger framework of soteriology. Soteriology is that aspect of theology which is concerned with how God – in the person of Jesus – effected human salvation. Put succinctly; soteriology is the doctrine of salvation. From the Catholic point of view, salvation rests on faith in Jesus and his work on the cross.
In order to understand why Jesus entered Hell, we must address the question of the status of those souls who died before the Incarnation. If salvation is based on faith in God, it would seem an injustice that the faithful who died before Jesus should be condemned. As Clement of Alexandria wrote, “It is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and only those who lived after the advent should enjoy divine justice.”
It is for this reason that the Catholic Church teaches that those who died in friendship with God before the resurrection went to Sheol. In a sense, Sheol can be understood as a “waiting room” for those who wait for the Saviour. In this light, it becomes intelligible why Jesus descended there to share the Good News.
Jesus’ descent into hell must also be understood in the context of the Ascension. Descending into Hell, Jesus freed the righteous dead and took them with Him to Heaven.
“As Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” – Matthew 12:40.
It seems logical that if the purpose of God becoming a human being was to provide a way for the salvation of all souls, then salvation must have been made available to those righteous souls who resided in Sheol. For this reason, out of love, Jesus descended into hell.