He Descended into Hell
By Br Vincent Antony Löning | ‘Sometimes we may feel we’ve dug ourselves into a tight spot. Sometimes this spot feels very tight, and very deep indeed. But it can never be too deep or too tight for God’s grace. I can hope—I must hope—for as long as I live’.
Christ’s descent into Hell is one of those somewhat obscure articles of faith, that we’re probably most familiar with from the Apostles’ Creed, but that’s rarely commented on and sometimes a little misunderstood. I’m not proposing to expound this in too much detail, rather to try and meditate a little on this belief, and its significance for our Christian lives—though for those of you who are interested, I recommend §§632-637 of the Catechism, available here.
The Gospels don’t really tell us much about what happened between Christ’s burial and his resurrection from the dead. Holy Saturday was a doubly holy day for Christ’s Jewish disciples and relatives, it being both the Sabbath and falling within Passover week. And yet we are only left to guess what they were up to on that day: were they mourning? Were they trying to keep the festival, despite everything they had recently gone through? The Gospels are similarly silent about Jesus’s immediate fate. That didn’t stop early Christian speculation about what went on: the apocryphal Acts of Pilate for instance tell us of Christ breaking the gates of Hades and triumphantly entering to lead out the just women and men of the Old Testament. Stunning works of art have been inspired by such stories, such as the famous Eastern icon of the Harrowing of Hell, or our own brother Beato Angelico’s depiction of the same theme (pictured above).
Fundamentally, the Church believes Christ’s human soul underwent the same fate as other human souls at the moment of death, because she believes the Incarnation is real. The Incarnation was not dissolved with Christ’s death. He did not abandon his humanity—our humanity—on the Cross. Jesus’s body and soul underwent precisely the separation which constitutes human death. Nowhere was ‘too low’ for Christ’s self-humbling. Christ’s victory over death took place in death’s own domain.
If this is true, it’s also true that we can’t go anywhere so low as to be beyond God’s grasp: “If I go down into Sheol, you are there”, as the Psalmist says. Sometimes we may feel we’ve dug ourselves into a tight spot. Sometimes this spot feels very tight, and very deep indeed. But it can never be too deep or too tight for God’s grace. I can hope—I must hope—for as long as I live. Christ has gone down, and shattered the gates of Hell once and for all. But there is another gate, which he is knocking much more gently at. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Apoc. 3.20) It is the door of our soul, and he awaits our reply.