Q. Why do we say in the Creed that Jesus “descended into hell”? Did Jesus spend time with those who are damned?
A. In the Apostle’s Creed, we affirm that after his death Jesus “descended into hell.” The first meaning of his descent into hell is that Christ experienced death like all of us, and that he dwelled in the realm of the dead.
However, Jesus is also the savior, and he preached the Gospel to those who had died. As it says in Scripture, Jesus “went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient…” (1 Pet 3:18-19).
The word “hell” used here is an old English word that does not refer to a place of the damned, as the word is often used in our time. Rather, this word “hell” refers to the place where the souls of the just resided. These were the imprisoned souls who lived before the Son of God took on a human nature and walked the earth. While these people were not without sin, they died in the state of grace, but awaited the vision of God that could only be accomplished after Christ’s saving action.
In the Old Testament, there was the distinction between the souls of the just and the unjust. The unjust souls went to Gehenna, a place of eternal fire. Jesus himself refers to “fiery Gehenna” (Mt 5:22), the place we refer to as “hell” in our time; a place for those who will not receive the vision of God.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man reveals the reality of the souls of the righteous and the damned. Lazarus, a poor beggar who laid at the rich man’s door, was carried to the bosom of Abraham after his death, while the rich man suffered torments in the netherworld. The rich man ignored the needs of Lazarus in his lifetime and, in turn, drove himself away from God. The Lord tells the rich man, “between you and us there is fixed a great abyss, so that those who might wish to cross from here to you cannot do so, nor can anyone cross from your side to us” (Lk 16: 26).
God “wills all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Our Lord took on human flesh, lived among us, suffered and died to rescue imprisoned souls. Since Jesus is an eternal person his saving action has eternal effects—past, present, and future. God is love and desires to justify all people of all ages.
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