Descent into Hell

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Bernard Confer, OP: The original meaning was that Jesus had really and truly died, as we do. We shouldn't take "hell" too literally as "the state of complete alienation from God," which is, of course, impossible for God the Son Incarnate to experience. The Son is eternally with the Father by His divine nature, for the Father, Son, and Spirit are "consubstantial," (homoousios) one-in-being with each other.


Christ Descended into Hell

632 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.[1] 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.[2]

633 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.[3] Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into "Abraham's bosom":[4] "It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell."[5] Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.[6]

634 "The gospel was preached even to the dead."[7] The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live."[8] Jesus, "the Author of life", by dying destroyed "him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage."[9] Henceforth the risen Christ holds "the keys of Death and Hades", so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth."[10]

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. ... He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him - He who is both their God and the son of Eve. ... "I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. ... I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead."[11]
In brief

636 By the expression "He descended into hell", the Apostles' Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil "who has the power of death" (Heb 2:14).

637 In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him.


Hebrew Greek Latin English
valley of the shadow of death
garbage dump
place of fire
the netherworld
realm of the dead vs. realm of the Gods?
lowest region of the world
the great pit beneath the earth
prison of the Titans
later, prison of the damned
synonym for abyss?

Latin vs. Greek

descendit ad inferna[12]
"From Late Latin infernalis, 'of the lower regions,' from infernus, "hell" (Ambrose), literally 'the lower (world),' noun use of Latin infernus, 'lower, lying beneath,' from infra. 'below' ... For the name of the place, or things which resemble it, the Italian form inferno has been used in English since 1834, from Dante."[13]
κατελθόντα εις τα κατώτατα
"lower regions"

The theological concept of "hell" does not match the etymology of either the Latin or the Greek words. A better translation in English would be "He descended into the realm of death" or "into the world of the dead."

Colloquially, "He went as low as He could go." Jesus couldn't get any lower than to suffer death as we suffer death.

Not counting the days

When we ponder the mystery of Jesus' descent into Hell, we must recognize that God has not revealed to us what this time of Jesus' ministry felt like to Him and to those to whom He revealed His wounded heart. Our earthly time of three scant days cannot measure the "time" the Good Shepherd spent to draw each one of His lost sheep homeward.

The Shepherd is also the gate to the sheepfold. All who enter, enter through Him; none may enter by another way. When a shepherd opens the gate of the sheepfold and stands in the gateway, he then becomes the gate, allowing only his own sheep to take refuge within.

Jesus' role as the Way is not arbitrary. Heaven is not a spatial reality with man-made boundaries that can easily be crossed by crooked means. Heaven is a love-relationship with God Himself, and there is no adultery in our marriage to God. The Father and the Spirit never act without the Son; they do not have a few "friends with benefits" outside the household of the Trinity. Unlike us, the members of the Trinity do not compete with each other for affection, praise, gratitude, or glory. If we want to share in their eternal selfless joy, we must yield to Jesus as He yields to the Father.


  1. Acts 3:15; Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:20; cf. Heb 13:20.
  2. Cf. 1 Pet 3:18-19.
  3. Cf. Phil 2:10; Acts 2:24; Rev 1:18; Eph 4:9; Pss 6:6; 88:11-13.
  4. Cf. Ps 89:49; 1 Sam 28:19; Ezek 32:17-32; Lk 16:22-26.
  5. Roman Catechism I, 6, 3.
  6. Cf. Council of Rome (745): DS 587; Benedict XII, "Cum dudum" (1341): DS 1011; Clement VI, Super quibusdam (1351): DS 1077; Council of Toledo IV (625): DS 485; Mt 27:52-53.
  7. 1 Pet 4:6.
  8. Jn 5:25; cf. Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9.
  9. Heb 2:14-15; cf. Acts 3:15.
  10. Rev 1:18; Phil 2:10.
  11. Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: PG 43, 440A, 452C; LH, Holy Saturday, OR.
  12. "The Apostles' Creed"
  13. Online Etymology Dictionary, "infernal."

Scriptures referenced in the Catechism

Acts 3:15 The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Rom 8:11 If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.
1 Cor 15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Heb 13:20-21 May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, Jesus our Lord, furnish you with all that is good, that you may do his will.
1 Pet 3:18-19 For Christ also suffered[1] for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit.
Phil 2:10 ... that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth[2] and under the earth ...
Acts 2:24 But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.
Rev 1:18 Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.
Eph 4:9

What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended into the lower [regions] of the earth?

τὸ δὲ Ἀνέβη τί ἐστιν, εἰ μὴ ὅτι καὶ κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς;
Ps 6:6 For in death there is no remembrance of you. Who praises you in Sheol?[3]
Ps 88:11-13 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades arise and praise you?[4]
Ps 89:49 What is man, that he should live and not see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?
1 Sam 28:19 Moreover, the LORD will deliver Israel, and you as well, into the hands of the Philistines. By tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the LORD will have delivered the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.
Ezek 32:17-32 This is a long text. The repeated theme is given in v. 18: "Son of man, wail over the hordes of Egypt—you and the women of mighty nations—Send them down to the underworld,with those who go down into the pit."
Lk 16:22-26

22 When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried,

23 and from the netherworld,* where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.

24 And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’

25 Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

26 Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

1 Pet 4:6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead[5] that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God.
Jn 5:25 Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
Mt 12:40 Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights,[6] so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
Rom 10:7 ‘Who will go down into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).[7]
Heb 2:14-15

14 Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,

15 and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

Rev 1:18 Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.[8]

Job 38:17

Psalm 68:18-22

1 Peter 3:18-20

Notes on the Scriptures

  1. Some ancient manuscripts say "died" instead of "suffered."
  2. Every knee should bend…every tongue confess: into this language of Is 45:23 there has been inserted a reference to the three levels in the universe, according to ancient thought, heaven, earth, under the earth.
  3. A motive for God to preserve the psalmist from death: in the shadowy world of the dead no one offers you praise. Sheol is the biblical term for the underworld where the insubstantial souls of dead human beings dwelt. It was similar to the Hades of Greek and Latin literature. In the second century B.C., biblical books begin to speak positively of life with God after death (Dn 12:1–3; Wis 3).
  4. The psalmist seeks to persuade God to act out of concern for divine honor: the shades give you no worship, so keep me alive to offer you praise.
  5. The dead: these may be the sinners of the flood generation who are possibly referred to in 1 Pt 3:19. But many scholars think that there is no connection between these two verses, and that the dead here are Christians who have died since hearing the preaching of the gospel.
  6. See Jon 2:1. While in Q the sign was simply Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites (Lk 11:30, 32), Matthew here adds Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights, a prefigurement of Jesus’ sojourn in the abode of the dead and, implicitly, of his resurrection.
  7. Here Paul blends Dt 30:13 and Ps 107:26.
  8. Netherworld: Greek Hades, Hebrew Sheol, the abode of the dead; cf. Rev 20:13–14; Nm 16:33.


If there is no way to be saved except by making an explicit act of faith in Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior, then all in the Old Testament are damned to Hell, including the prophets, the authors of Scripture, and God's Chosen People. God had to have been lying when He said that He loved them and wanted them to be His own. Everyone who could not know about the saving death and resurrection of Jesus necessarily is predestined to go to Hell.

This is intolerable. Jesus died for all, not just for some of God's children.

It follows that there must be a way in which Jesus can reveal Himself to the dead as their Lord and Savior--a "time" out of time in which they can learn the gospel message. No one can come to the Father except through Jesus, so those who die innocently without the benefit of the faith must have some way of coming to know Jesus after death.

This is why the story of Jesus' descent into Hell is so significant. It assures us that He can make himself known to the dead as their Savior and can bring them to eternal bliss.

I don't think the Scriptures tell us exactly what the time relation is between the "harrowing of Hell" and the period between Jesus' death on the Cross and His Ascension into Heaven. That the dead hear the gospel and are set free by it seems to me to be a dogmatic certitude. How and when this proclamation takes place seems to me to be an open question.

We do not have a clock here on earth that tells us what time it is in the afterlife. The doctrine that all who enter heaven must enter through Jesus is about the theological priority of grace over nature, not about what time on earth the gates of Heaven are opened to those who have said "yes" to God's offer of mercy in their hearts.