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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 them 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” (Lk 16:19-31) as in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. 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” (1Pet 4:6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (484). “He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (637).

In the funeral chapel of the Church of Chora in Istanbul, Turkey, 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 hell, fallen in cross shape over the pit of darkness. Satan is chained and falling into the pit of darkness. 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 righteous people who lived before the resurrection of Jesus were in a state of peace and waiting for the opening of the gates of heaven by Jesus. Since Jesus has opened the gates, the believers of Jesus have access to heaven. We are waiting for the end of our life to reach heaven. The righteous who have died are also awaiting the second coming of Christ for the resurrection of their body followed by the last judgement and eternal reward.


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