Holy Saturday: What Did Jesus Do in Hell?

Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled. – From an Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

On this Holy Saturday, as we anticipate the Resurrection of the Lord, we can recall the lines in the Apostles’ Creed in which we profess our belief that Jesus ‘descended into hell.’ But reflection upon this truth may raise some questions. Why did Jesus descend into hell? What did He do there?

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, host of Go Ask Your Father™, recently explained the Church’s teaching on Our Lord’s descent into hell, saying, “There is the traditional way that the Church has understood that part of the Creed, so in the Catechism of the Catholic Church you’ll see this. There’s a whole section on this, beginning at paragraph #631 in the Catechism. But in that section, it reminds us that one of the most important and frequent affirmations in the New Testament is that Jesus rose from the dead. So, the fact that He rose from the dead presupposes “that the Crucified One sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to His Resurrection.” (CCC #632)

However, Msgr. Swetland clarified what we mean when we say that Jesus descended into hell, saying, “Now, in the understanding of apostolic times, the abode of the dead was in Hebrew sheol and hades in Greek. And there’s this differentiation between the abode of the dead, which is the place that we would now in theology call hell – the state for those who have chosen to separate themselves from God and the things of God. But there was also, as we hear Jesus teaching in His parables, the bosom of Abraham. The place where the souls were that were in friendship with God, who were awaiting the fullness of the Gospel and the revelation of the Messiah.”

“And the tradition is that Jesus went to the abode of the dead to preach the Gospel and to raise up the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets and the kings, and the righteous ones from before His Resurrection, before His death on the Cross, who lived before the coming of the Messiah. So the tradition is not that He went to the place of the damned, but that He went to the place that is referred to as Abraham’s bosom.”

“So that’s the mystery of Holy Saturday. It is often referred to as that time when Jesus dwelt among the righteous dead of old and brought them the fullness of the Gospel. In other words, brought them salvation.”

Listen to the full explanation below:

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Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at relevantradio.com and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.