Dear Fr. Leo: When we say the Apostles Creed, we say, “He descended into hell.” It seems to be a direct contradiction to the Bible when Jesus told the thief as they hung on the cross, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Did Jesus go to Heaven or Hell when he died on the cross? Maybe he bi-located? – T
Great question! To unpack it, let’s look at three things:
1. First-century cosmology
2. Sacred Scripture, especially 2 Peter 3:18b-20a
3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraphs 632 and following.
People in the ancient world looked at the cosmos quite differently than we do today. Today, we know that we are on the third planet from the sun, in an outward spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of the millions of billions in an expanding universe. Not so in the ancient world. The universe for them was a much simpler place, consisting of three main parts, the heavens, the earth, and the underworld (see St. Paul’s great hymn in Philippians 2:10). It’s roughly analogous to a large tent. This makes sense since most people were tent-dwellers early on.
Stretching over the earth, like the fabric of a great tent, was the sky. Above this “veil of the heavens” is where God dwelled with the heavenly host in unapproachable light. The veil of the heavens was held up by two great pillars, or tent poles, considered by some to be the Rock of Gibraltar and the Caucasus Mountains. The earth would be like the floor of the tent. This is where humanity and the animals dwelled. Underneath the earth was the underworld. The Mediterranean Basin is very active volcanically. Since they had observed deep caves and caverns in some places and fire coming out of the earth in others, the general consensus was that the underworld consisted of a dark, cavernous place with a lake of fire at the bottom. This image was refined over the centuries, but the basic three-fold structure remained intact. This is why even today, we speak of going “up” to heaven and “down” to hell.
Interestingly enough, in just about every ancient culture in the area, everybody went to the underworld after death. Here they dwelt in this shadowy underworld in a half-awake, half-asleep state of being. In the years leading up to the intertestamental period, those who were righteous in life got to be near the underworld’s upper edge. Still, the unrighteous would be cast into the lower regions, perhaps even into the lake of fire itself, and later into “the pit” at the bottom of the lake. Nevertheless, heaven was not an option for anybody. Since the fall of humanity (Genesis 3), the gates of heaven were closed to everybody.
Enter Jesus, who “suffered, died and was buried.”
Since we believe that Jesus truly died in the flesh, he experienced everything that every other dead person went through. Like every other human, he would have descended into the underworld. But here is where it gets fun. Just as he had preached the good news to those on the earth in his public ministry, we read in 2 Peter 3:18b-20a that similarly, “he also went to preach to the spirits in prison.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 632 puts it thus: “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.” In the following paragraph, it says, “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.”
Jesus’ descent to “Sheol,” the realm of the dead, brings to completion the proclamation of the Good News. This would have been efficacious for all the dead, including the “good thief” who died on Calvary with Jesus on Good Friday.
So, while our cosmology is more informed today, the reality of humanity’s relationship of communion with God after the passion, death and resurrection of Christ remains the same. Humanity is reconciled to God, the salvation offered is universal in scope so that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend, in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father, that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil. 2:10ff)
Got a question about the Church or the Faith? Fr. Leo Walsh, JCL, STD, is your local canon lawyer and theologian. He currently serves in the Archdiocese as Judicial Vicar and Pastor of St. Patrick’s in Anchorage. Email your question to: firstname.lastname@example.org.