Hey, Father! What do we mean that Jesus ‘descended into hell?’

In the Apostle’s Creed we pray, “(Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell.” What do we mean that Jesus descended into Hell?

– Anonymous in diocese

In the Apostle’s Creed, we profess that Jesus “descended into hell” and that “on the third day he rose again.” If hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033), how can this be? Our difficulty with this is simply the difficulty of translation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains why Jesus descended into the realm of the dead, what is meant here with the word hell:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection (see Acts 3:15, Romans 8:11, I Corinthians 15:20, and Hebrews 13:20). This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that 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.

This is why Saint Peter says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey” (I Peter 3:18-20). This is the great mystery we celebrate the morning of Holy Saturday.

In its original use, our word “hell” referred to the abode of the dead, much like the Greek word Hades or the Hebrew word Sheol. With the passage of time, our word hell acquired the exclusive meaning of the realm of the devils or the state of final separation from God. As the connotation of the word changed, our English translation of the Apostles’ Creed did not likewise change.

When he descended into hell, into the realm of the dead where the righteous were because heaven was at that moment closed to them, he did not do so “to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him… The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 633-634).

  • Father Daren Zehnle, J.C.L., K.C.H.S., is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.