In the Apostle’s Creed, we profess,
“I believe in Jesus Christ … who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead”.
One might ask why Jesus had to descend into hell. The confusion is because of the two different meanings for the word hell in the English language.
The most common understanding of the word hell is in its strict sense, as a place of demons and evil men, a place of eternal damnation and suffering. This place is called Gehenna in Greek (നരകം in Malayalam). So did Jesus descend into Gehenna, this place of eternal damnation ?
The answer is, No.
Theologians also use the word hell in a broad sense, to merely refer to any place of dead, other than Heaven. In Apostle’s Creed, we use the word hell in this broad sense.
One can ask, “Ok, I understand Heaven, Gehenna, and purgatory. But what else is there besides these ?”.
Before Christ’s Ascension, no person has ever entered heaven. Jesus himself reveals that truth, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no man has ascended into heaven” (John 3.13). The gates of heaven were closed as a result of Adam’s fall, until the time Christ came down to earth and paid the price of our redemption.
There were many holy men who had died before Christ. We cannot assume these holy souls of Old Testament would be suffering in Gehenna along with the wicked. So one can naturally ask where were these dead, if neither in heaven nor in Gehenna ?
Our church fathers call that place by various names –
- Limbo of the Fathers
- Abraham’s bosom
This Limbo of the Fathers or Abraham’s bosom was where the blessed souls of Old Testament were held.
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16), we read that while the rich man was damned into Gehenna, Lazarus was taken into Abraham’s bosom or Limbo (“Lazarus died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” Luke 16.22). These blessed souls along with Abraham were far away from the fires of gehenna (“the rich man, being in torments, saw Abraham far away” Luke 16.23). Even though far from gehenna, these holy souls were in a state of captivity because they could not enter heaven. They were longing to be set free by Christ.
The word hell, when used to mean the place of dead in general, that includes this Limbo of the Fathers.
Christ’s “descend into hell” means that Jesus’s soul, after Jesus’s death on the cross, descended into this place of blessed souls. Christ faced death just like others before him. But Jesus’s soul descended also as Savior for these captive souls. Jesus preached to them the good news of their salvation, which was accomplished by His death.
Now, among those who died before Christ were also Adam and Eve, our first parents who once walked in the presence of God. When Christ descended into the dead, this God was coming in search of them as well, as their Redeemer, and now also as one of them – as their son.
Imagine the great joy which welcomed Jesus among these dead ! These holy souls redeemed by Christ’s death were then taken into heaven when Jesus ascended into heaven. As written in the Scripture, “When He ascended on High, He also led with him the captives” (Ephesians 4.8).
There is no longer a Limbo of the Fathers after Christ’s ascension because the gates of heaven have been opened for us by Christ. Christ’s death redeemed the entire mankind. It was for the redemption of those before Christ, “the gospel was preached also to the dead” (1 Peter 4.6) by this same Christ who descended into them.
1. This Limbo is not purgatory. Purgatory exists even today and will exist until the second coming of Jesus. Purgatory is where souls are purified to payoff any remaining debts before entering heaven.
2. The Greek word for the place of dead in general is, Hades (പാതാളം in Malayalam). When Bible was translated to English, both Hades and Gehenna were translated as Hell. Hence the two different meanings for the word hell.
Further Reading :
Catechism of the Catholic Church on Christ’s descend into Hell