JESUS DESCENDED INTO HELL
According to the Apostles’ Creed, we profess, “He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.” Did Jesus really go to hell before his resurrection? According to Ephesians 4:9-10, Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” The resurrection of Jesus presupposes he stayed in the realm of the dead prior to his rising from the dead. In 1Peter 3:18-20 we read, “He was put to death in the body, but made alive in the spirit, in which He also went and preached to the spirits in prison.”
Jesus descended among the dead who were waiting to enter heaven and proclaimed the Good News that he has going to open the gates of heaven. He did not go to the hell of the damned for their liberation, but to “Abraham’s bosom” as in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). So “hell” in the Apostles Creed is the Hades where the deceased are deprived of the vision of God and awaiting the victory of the Redeemer. Thus, “The gospel was preached even to the dead.” (1 Pet 4:6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (CCC-484). “He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (CCC-637).
In the funeral chapel of the Church of Chora in Istanbul, there is a famous icon called, “The Harrowing of Hell.” It is the depiction of Christ’s descent into hell. In this icon, Jesus is standing over the broken gates of Hades, fallen in cross shape. Jesus, in his glorious dress, is lifting Adam and Eve out of their graves by the wrists because they cannot rise themselves. It shows Jesus as a conqueror and rescuer of humanity, represented by the first parents. In that icon, we see kings, prophets and the righteous of Israel, including David, Solomon, Moses, Daniel, Zechariah, and John the Baptist standing beside Jesus.
The faithful who had died before the resurrection of Jesus had to wait until he opened the gates of heaven for humanity to enter. Through our Christian initiation, we are eligible to enter heaven after our death. However, we have to continue leading a righteous life keeping the commandments of the Lord.