4 Reasons Christ Descended into Hell

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Before I share with you the text from Aquinas from today’s episode, here are those three icons of Jesus leading the just out of Hell. The top image is the one I spoke about at length in today’s show:

There are four reasons why Christ together with His soul descended to the underworld.

First, He wished to take upon Himself the entire punishment for our sin, and thus atone for its entire guilt. The punishment for the sin of man was not alone death of the body, but there was also a punishment of the soul, since the soul had its share in sin; and it was punished by being deprived of the beatific vision; and as yet no atonement had been offered whereby this punishment would be taken away. Therefore, before the coming of Christ all men, even the holy fathers after their death, descended into the underworld. Accordingly in order to take upon Himself most perfectly the punishment due to sinners, Christ not only suffered death, but also His soul descended to the underworld. He, however, descended for a different cause than did the fathers; for they did so out of necessity and were of necessity taken there and detained, but Christ descended there of His own power and free will: “I am counted among them that go down to the pit; I am become as a man without help, free among the dead” [Ps 87:5–Vulgate]. The others were there as captives, but Christ was freely there.

The second reason is that He might perfectly deliver all His friends. Christ had His friends both in the world and in the underworld. The former were His friends in that they possessed charity; and the latter were they who departed this life with charity and faith in the future Redeemer, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and other just and good men. Therefore, since Christ had dwelt among His friends in this world and had delivered them by His death, so He wished to visit His friends who were detained in the underworld and deliver them also: “I will penetrate all the lower parts of the earth, and will behold all that hope in the Lord” [Sir 24:45].

The third reason is that He would completely triumph over the devil. Now, a person is perfectly vanquished when he is not only overcome in conflict, but also when the assault is carried into his very home, and the seat of his kingdom is taken away from him. Thus Christ triumphed over the devil, and on the Cross He completely vanquished him: “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world (that is, the devil) be cast out” [Jn 12:31]. To make this triumph complete, Christ wished to deprive the devil of the seat of his kingdom and to imprison him in his own house—which is the underworld. Christ, therefore, descended there, and despoiled the devil of everything and bound him, taking away his prey: “And despoiling the principalities and powers, He hath exposed them confidently in open show, triumphing over them in Himself” [Col 2:15]. Likewise, Christ who had received the power and possession of heaven and earth, desired too the possession of the underworld, as says the Apostle: “That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” [Phil 2:10]. “In My name they shall cast out devils” [Mk 16:17].

The fourth and final reason is that Christ might free the just who were in the underworld. For as Christ wished to suffer death to deliver the living from death, so also He would descend into the underworld to deliver those who were there: “You also by the blood of your testament, sent forth your prisoners out of the pit where there is no water” [Zech 9:11]. And again: “O death, I will be your death; O hell, I will be your bite” [Hosea 13:14]. Although Christ wholly overcame death, yet not so completely did He destroy the underworld, but, as it were, He bit it. He did not free all from the underworld, but those only who were without mortal sin. He likewise liberated those without original sin, from which they, as individuals, were freed by circumcision; or before [the institution of]. circumcision, they who had been saved through their parents’ faith (which refers to those who died before having the use of reason); or by the sacrifices, and by their faith in the future coming of Christ (which refers to adults)”. The reason they were there in the underworld is original sin which they had contracted from Adam, and from which as members of the human race they could not be delivered except by Christ.

Here are the four takeaways that I alluded to but did not read:

Now we may gather four considerations from this for our own instruction.

(1) A firm hope in God. No matter how much one is afflicted, one ought always hope in the assistance of God and have trust in Him. There is nothing so serious as to be in the underworld. If, therefore, Christ delivered those who were in the underworld, what great confidence ought every friend of God have that he will be delivered from all his troubles! “She [that is, wisdom] did not forsake the just when he was sold, but delivered him from sinners. She went down with him into the pit. And in bonds she did not leave him” [Wis 10:13]. God helps in a special manner those who serve Him, and hence the servant of God should feel secure in Him: “He who fears the Lord shall tremble at nothing and shall not be afraid; for He is his hope” [Sir 34:16].

(2) We ought to conceive a fear of God and avoid all presumption. We have already seen that Christ suffered for sinners and descended into the underworld for them. However, He did not deliver all sinners, but only those who were free from mortal sin. He left there those who departed this life in mortal sin. Hence, anyone who descends into hell in mortal sin has no hope of deliverance; and he will remain in hell as long as the holy fathers remain in paradise, that is, for all eternity: “And these shall go into everlasting punishment; but the just, into life everlasting” [Mt 25:46].

(3) We ought to arouse in ourselves a mental anxiety. Since Christ descended into the underworld for our salvation, we ought in all care go down there in spirit by considering, for instance, its punishments as did that holy man, Hezechiah: “I said: In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of the underworld” [Is 38:10]. Indeed, he who during this life frequently descends into hell by thinking of it, will not easily fall into hell at death; for such meditation keeps one from sin, and draws one out of it. We see how men of this world guard themselves against wrongdoing because of the temporal punishment; but with how much more care ought they avoid the punishment of hell which far exceeds all else in its duration, its severity, and its varied nature! “In all your works remember your last end, and you shall never sin” [Sir 7:40].

(4) There comes to us in this an example of love. Christ descended into the underworld in order to deliver His own; and so we should go down there to rescue our own. They cannot help themselves. Therefore, let us deliver those who are in purgatory. He would be very hard-hearted who does not come to the aid of a relative who is detained in an earthly prison; but much more cruel is he who will not assist a friend who is in purgatory, for there is no comparison between the pains of this world and of that: “Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least you my friends, because the hand of the Lord hath touched me” [Job 19:21]. “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins” [2 Mac 12:46]. We may assist these souls in three ways as St. Augustine tells us, viz., through Masses, prayers, and almsgiving. St. Gregory adds a fourth, that is, fasting. All this is not so amazing, for even in this world a friend can pay a debt for his friend; but this applies only to those who are in purgatory.

We must necessarily know two things: the glory of God and the punishment of hell. For being attracted by His glory and made fearful by punishments, we take warning and withdraw ourselves from sin. But for us to appreciate these facts is very difficult. Thus, it is said of God’s glory: “But the things that are in heaven, who shall search out?” [Wis 9:16]. For those who are worldly minded this is indeed difficult, because “he that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaks” [Jn 3:31]; but it is easier for the spiritually minded, because, “he who comes from above is above all,” as is said in the same place. Accordingly, God descended from heaven and became incarnate to teach us heavenly things. Once it was difficult to know about the punishments of the underworld: “no one has been known to have returned from the underworld” [Wis 2:1], as it is said in the person of the wicked. But this cannot be said now, for just as Christ descended from heaven to teach us heavenly things, so also He came back from the region of the underworld to teach us about it. It is, therefore, necessary that we believe not only that Christ was made man, and died, but also that He arose again from the dead. Therefore, it is said in the Creed: “The third day He arose again from the dead.”

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  1. Hey Matt,
    A few days ago I was reading Bishop Barron’s reflection on his evening with William Lane Craig and came across where WLC presented a paper over penal substitution. I’ve read some articles about the different theories of atonement and a lot of it just flies over my head with regards to understanding them. Can you shed some helpful insight on this topic (Catholic v Protestant view) and how it relates to the first reason why Christ descended into the underworld? Thanks, love the podcast!

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