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Did Christ Descend into Hell Itself?

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Dear Tradition in Action,

Good day to you, and I hope you don't mind my asking some  questions/clarifications.

My father and I had an argument regarding the phrase "He descended into hell" in the Apostles Creed,  I always believed/have known that it traditionally meant Jesus went to Limbo to free the just souls there. However, my father insisted that it is very clear He went into hell, not limbo or purgatory.

Can you clarify this for us? What did our Lord do in "hell?" As far as I know, Christ cannot go into hell (eternal hell) because by His presence hell would be made into heaven. Am I right?

     Thank you very much and God bless,


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TIA responds:

Dear R.D.R.,

The habitual teaching of the Church is that Our Lord went to Limbo, as you said, to free the souls of the just ones who were there waiting for the Redemption. However, some great Doctors of the Church have defended that He went to Hell also.

On this, we reproduce here for you and your father’s perusal a footnote from Mr. Guimarães’ book (Animus Injuriandi I, Los Angeles: TIA, 2010, p. 43) that answers your question.

Even though the descent of the Soul of Our Lord to the Hell where the reprobates dwell is not a matter closed to discussion, we adopt here the judgment of the great Doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine. He asserts that it is probable that Christ went to “all the infernal places,” and, consequently, to the Hell of the condemned souls: “Probabile est profecto Christi animam ad omnia loca inferni descendisse.” In support of this thesis, the saintly Doctor cites St. Ambrose, St Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius Emissenus, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem (De Christo capite totius Ecclesiae, lib. 4, c. 16, in Opera Omnia, Palermo/Naples/Paris: Pedone, 1872, vol. 1, p. 286).

His arguments are reinforced by this consideration of Fr. Francisco Suarez: “‘Christ took some action in all the places of Hell; but the most perfect and co-natural way of taking action is to be present by one’s actual presence. Furthermore, at His death Christ was proclaimed Lord of the living and the dead so that all – even the devils and the condemned – belong to His kingdom and are subject to His power. Therefore, it was well for Him to take possession of His kingdom by His presence and to triumph over all’” (De mysterio vitae Christi, disp. 43, sect. 4, n. 1, Paris, 1866, vol. 19, pp. 740-741, apud Hector-Raphaël Quilliet, entry "Descente de Jésus aux enfers," in DTC, Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1920, vol. 4, col. 612).

In this same sense, St. Thomas Aquinas argues: “The third reason is that He [Our Lord Jesus Christ] triumphs over the Devil in a perfect manner. Indeed, someone triumphs perfectly over someone else when he not only defeats him in the battlefield, but also invades his actual house and destroys both it and the seat of his kingdom.

Now, Christ triumphed over the Devil and vanquished him on the Cross; hence John (12:31) says: ‘Now is the judgment of the world; now shall the prince of this world (that is, the Devil) be cast out.’ And, in order to triumph perfectly, He wanted to destroy the seat of the [Devil’s] kingdom and chain him in his house, which is Hell. So, He descended there, smashed everything that belonged to the Devil, put him in chains, and rescued his prey [that is, the just who were in Limbo as a consequence of original sin]....

Just as Christ received possession of and power over Heaven and Earth, He also wanted to receive possession of Hell so that, in the words of the Apostle to the Philippians (2:10), ‘In the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in Heaven, on Earth and in Hell’“(Thomas Aquinas, in Symbolum Apostolorum Expositio, a.5, Rome: Marietti, 1954, vol. 2, pp. 204-205).

Elsewhere, however, St. Thomas gives a different opinion (cf. Summa Theologiae, Rome: Marietti, 1948, Part III, q. 52, a.2; III Sententiarum, Paris: L. Lethielleux, 1933, vol. 3).

We hope this exposition will help you.


     TIA correspondence desk

Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted April 17, 2012

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