I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
That is the first half of the Apostle’s Creed, a synopsis of our beliefs as Christians, and the shorter version of the Nicaean Creed, the Profession of Faith that we recite at Mass.
Relevant Radio listener Manushka called into The Patrick Madrid Show to ask about a part of the Creed that talks about Jesus descending into hell. As a Presbyterian, Manushka has attended both Protestant services as well as Catholic Masses. And during the part where the congregation recites the Creed, she noticed that the Protestants leave out the part where Jesus “descends into hell”, but Catholics leave it in.
“The question that I have is: Did Jesus really go to hell? And if so, what was the purpose of Him going to hell?”
“That’s a really good question,” Patrick replied. Unaware of why Protestants might leave that phrase out, he continued, “Jesus did not go to the hell of the damned. He did not go to the places known as ‘Abaddon’, or ‘Apollyon’ in the Greek, in the Old Testament, where it mentions this place of doom and destruction. He did not go there. Rather, He went to the ‘Underworld’.”
When the Creed refers to Jesus’s descent, it refers to His journey to the place known as “Sheol” in Hebrew, “Hades” in Greek, the all-encompassing term for the abode of the dead, both the good and the evil. Within Sheol, the good and the evil souls were separated by a great chasm that prevented the two from touching (Luke 16:26). Jesus descended into the portion of Sheol where the good and righteous souls resided, awaiting salvation.
Jesus entered Sheol as a triumphant king, victorious in His conquest over sin and death, proclaiming the good news to all the saints who had died before Him. His death for our sins opened the gates of heaven so that we might experience eternal paradise with Him. Jesus’s descent was a journey of joy and glory as He ferried the righteous souls of Sheol to heaven.
The reason Jesus would not travel to the hell of the damned is because by its very definition, the state of being in hell indicates the “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033).
“The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC, 1035).
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