Fr. Earl Fernandes, Dean and Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at the Athenaeum/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, writes a monthly column for The Catholic Telegraph. Below is his November, 2013 article on the meaning of the descent into Hell.
Dear Father, I have a quick theological question for you, posed by my mother. In the Creed, we say that Jesus “descended into Hell.” What is the Church’s teaching on this?
The Apostles’ Creed mentions that “Jesus descended into Hell.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats this question (nn. 631-637). In short, Jesus did suffer on the Cross and die, but through his death, He conquered sin, death, and the devil. After his death, Jesus descended into the realm of the dead or Sheol, in the Jewish tradition, to open the gates of heaven to the souls of the just who waited there.
Sheol was the “place” where souls, whether evil or good, went while they awaited the Redeemer. The fate of those souls was not the same. For example, Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man, who was in torment in flames, and Lazarus, the poor man, who rested in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:19-30).
In the “bosom of Abraham” the souls of the just awaited the Redeemer. Wisdom (3:1-4) speaks of these souls: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them. They seemed in the view of the foolish to be dead, and their passing away was though an affliction, and their going forth utter destruction, but they are at peace. For if before men, indeed they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality.” In hope, these souls awaited deliverance.
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