Did Jesus “descend into hell” ?

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.

Note:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who is a Christian ?

An interesting conversation took place with my students few years ago. I asked my students their views about same-sex marriage, which at that time the US Supreme Court had just made legal. Some of my students supported same-sex marriage, and so I asked how many of them know what Jesus taught about marriage.

We can read what Jesus had to say about marriage in the gospel of Matthew (ch 19). When God created us, He created us man and woman for the very purpose of marriage. Through marriage, God wants us to know the mystery of the relationship between God and His bride, the Church. Marriage is thus a sacred covenant that must never be broken. While my students learned the relevant verses on the Christian understanding of marriage, my next question was,

“So, who do you think can rightly define marriage – Jesus Christ or US Supreme Court ?”

Some answered Jesus. Others, still hesitant, said Jesus can have his opinion but we must respect everyone’s opinion.

I stepped back and asked, “Do you believe Jesus is God ? And if so, if God says X and man says Y, who do you think we can trust ?”

These two questions relate to two important aspects about our faith.

First is the identity of the very person of Jesus Christ. To put it plainly, who do you believe is Jesus. And second, there are consequences in our life if we choose to believe Jesus Christ is God.

Let’s take the first aspect – who is Jesus according to our faith.

Can we call someone a Christian simply  because he agrees with the philosophy of Jesus Christ ? The answer is a clear no ! The distinctive mark of Christian faith is that a Christian believes that this Jewish carpenter by name Jesus, who lived in Palestine during the height of Roman empire, is the Sovereign God of this Universe. This is an extra ordinary claim that we Christians make. St. Paul knew that the gospel he was preaching was at once scandalous to Jews and foolishness to gentiles (1 Cor 1/23) .Yet, it is that faith we Christians proclaim each Sunday during the Holy Mass. At each Mass we loudly proclaim the very words of our faith,

“I believe in Jesus Christ …. who is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”

This is also the proclamation in the Gospels and what the Apostles taught. St. John writes that the Son of God is God himself (John 1/18). In the gospel as well as in the letter to Hebrews, we read that everything created was created through Christ (John 1/3 and Hebrews 1/2) and that all created things are sustained by the power of Christ (Hebrews 1/3).

St. Thomas, our father in faith, and who called upon Jesus “My Lord [Yahweh] and my God”, planted this faith in our soil too.

… and these lead us to the second part of my question to my students. If we believe in this faith of our fathers, won’t that also have other consequences in our life ?

Yes ! Being a Christian would also mean that we must change our lives by the very words of Jesus Christ because the words spoken by Jesus are the Words of our Creator God ! Even the “difficult sayings” of Christ, such as His teaching on marriage, His claim as the only Redeemer, and most importantly what He taught about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, a Christian has to simply believe because it was God was spoke and taught. A Christian has no right to pick and choose what is good for them. If we reject one Word, we are rejecting our Lord Himself.

As mere men, we are not perfect and will definitely fall short in following all the teachings of Christ. We then have to acknowledge our own weaknesses rather than blame God or ignore Christ’s teaching.

Let’s also remember that our Lord is a compassionate God. God became human at the time appointed by God, “for us men and for our salvation”.  As the Catechism of Catholic Church teaches, “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith” (Paragraph 463).

Further Reading:

Catechism of the Catholic Church – Jesus Christ, the only Son of God

John 1 (Malayalam Bible)

Hebrews 1 (Malayalam Bible)

Matthew 19 (Malayalam Bible)

 

 

 

 

What is Divine Revelation ?

The word Revelation comes from Latin. It means ‘to disclose‘ or ‘to reveal‘ that which is hidden.

By our God given reason, we can know that this beautiful world in which we live, has to have a Creator God. This God however is not visible to our eyes. In that respect, our God is ‘hidden‘ as we do not see or hear God directly as we see other visible things.

God created man and wants man to attain true happiness. Our true happiness is when we truly know God and love God with all our heart. But how can we know or love that which is hidden or beyond our senses ?

God alone provides the solution to this. In order for us to know and love God, our loving God discloses the mystery about Himself as well as His plan for mankind. Divine Revelation refers to how God reveals to mankind about God’s mystery and God’s divine plan. Before the coming of Jesus, God chose prophets and through prophets, God communicated His plan to people. We read in the Book of Exodus that God chose Moses and spoke to Moses about God’s plan to free the people of Israel from Egypt and to lead them into the promised land. The whole of Sacred Scripture is God’s divine revelation at various stages in human history.

In the final stage of God’s revelation, God fully revealed Himself to mankind through our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the culmination of God’s divine revelation after preparing mankind through various stages of revelation.

References –

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Hebrews 1 / 1-2 (Malayalam Bible)