True or False: Our Lord Descended Into Hell
First, a quick quiz:
After Christ died, He descended into:
D. None of the above
A Bad Translation
If you thought of the Apostle's Creed before you answered and chose “C” then you are a victim a bad English translation. The Latin phrase is descendit ad inferos. If you think of Dante's Divine Comedy you'll note right away that his first book is called the Inferno, which has a very important “n” in the word that distinguishes the “hell” with its many circles from the “hell” which we say Our Lord descended into.
Infero comes from the Latin word, inferus, which means “below” whereas Inferno refers to the place of punishment we call hell. As we know, hell is a place of everlasting punishment. Once there, unless you're Dante or Virgil, you can never leave. Therefore, the idea that Christ would have a reason to go there is contrary to our beliefs about hell.
The Hebrews also believed in hell. Their word for it was Gehenna, named after the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem. This valley was originally used as a place of worship by the followers of Ba'al who would sacrifice their children to the god, Moloch. It was a mark of shame on the Hebrew people that King Solomon built a temple to Moloch and worshiped there as a favor to one of his wives. (1 Kings 11:6-10) His horrible act of sacrilege brought the wrath of God upon the chosen people and resulted in the fall of Solomon's kingdom and the dispersal of the tribes.
Centuries later, the Valley of Hinnom was turned into a burning landfill where the Jews would cast down their garbage and the bodies of dead animals. The valley became a metaphor for what happens to people who live wicked lives. They are cast out like useless objects that no longer have any purpose.
But while the Hebrews believed in a place designated for people who had lived evil lives, they did not believe in a doctrine of heaven. For those who would not be “thrown away” the only place they could go was “the pit” or Sheol. Sadly for them, Sheol wasn't a particularly pleasant place either, but there was hope for people who were there. Psalm 18 says that the writer called from Sheol and from His temple, the Lord heard him. Psalm 139 says that, “if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there!”
If Gehenna can be compared to a landfill, then Sheol is like a storage facility where you save things that you're going to need later. This was the place that the patriarchs and prophets had to wait in before the gates of Heaven were open. When Our Lord died, the first place He stopped was the storage shed of Sheol. He went to release all the great men and women of the Old Testament who had faithfully served the Lord.
This much is commonly accepted, but there may have been one more stop before Christ's resurrection. In 1 Peter 3:18-20, it says He preached to the spirits in prison who had been disobedient to God in the days of Noah. St. Peter probably mentions these people because it was a time when the world was very wicked. There was such great evil at the time that God decided it was time to clear the slate. The very best people were saved (Noah and his family) while the rest of humanity was drowned. Most of these people went to Gehenna, while a handful went somewhere else.
These people were not good enough to go to Sheol, where they could be immediately released by Christ, because they still had to satisfy the guilt of refusing to answer God's call to get on the ark. Surely then, this second stop of Our Lord was Purgatory. While the people in Sheol were set free, St. Peter does not say these people were released from prison after Christ preached to them. It seems they were given hope of the Beatific Vision even though they were not ready to experience it.
Nothing's Going to Change
Although the English Liturgy is undergoing a revision to more accurately reflect the Latin texts, don't look forward to a clarification on inferos. We only recite this line in the Apostle's Creed which is not said at Mass. During Mass we say the Nicene Creed and this creed doesn't include the line.
Next time you begin your rosary with the Apostle's Creed and you say that Christ descended into hell, think about what this line really means. Christ underwent no punishment, nor did he rescue any tormented souls in hell. Rather, this was was the beginning of His grand procession that lead right through the gates of Heaven.