He Went down to Hell

He Went down to Hell- By Rev. Fr. B Joseph Francis

“Hell” refers to “Sheol”

Many a Christian today is surprised by this statement in the Apostles’ Creed which is not found in the Creed of Nicaea (325 AD). They ask, what this hell into which Jesus descended is like? Old Testament speaks of “Sheol“. Scripture scholars are agreed that the concept has been much influenced by the thought patterns of other peoples in the Middle East.

In the beginning it was considered to be a dark cavern below the earth, to which went all who die, both good and bad. There they led a shadowy, sleep existence. Read I Sam 28.3 ff. especially v.18 where the dead prophet complains to king Saul who had asked a witch to bring him up from “Sheol” to answer his question: “why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”. There are many references to it in the book of Job and psalms (Cf. Job 7.9-10; 10.21-22; 14.12-14; 17. 13-16; 30.23; Ps 88.3-6; 28.2; 30.9; 6.5 etc.).

Pathetic also is the prayer of King Hezekiah who is told by the prophet Isaiah that he is to die soon. Read Is 38.1 ff. especially vv. 10-11 where the king is bitterly complaining “I said: In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see the LORD in the land of the living; I shall look upon mortals no more among the inhabitants of the world”. And his pleading is poignant in v.18 “For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness”. The implication is: “please let me live so that I can at least praise you for a while longer, if not, it would be a loss for you”!

“Hades” or “Sheol-Hades”

During the second century and the first century B.C, the concept underwent a significant change. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament ordered by King Ptolemy) translated Sheol by the Greek word “Hades“. At the same time, under the influence of apocalyptic literature e.g., the Book of Enoch (ca. 200 B.C) and Ezra, and also under the influence of Zoroaster’s Avesta, the Jews began to distinguish two parts in the Sheol-Hades. The upper part was for the good who began to enjoy some joy, whereas a lower part which came to be known later as “Gehenna” was a place of unending punishment for the Lost.

Further, these thoughts were confirmed in the belief in resurrection during the Maccabeus period (II Mac 7.9+14+23+29). The good will be in the upper part of Sheol-Hades and await the day of resurrection when it would be emptied! The Apostles’ Creed when it says that Jesus descended into “hell” also refers to this Sheol-Hades to which he went. This has two significances: one is that Jesus having become one of us, emptied himself and having died in obedience to the Father on the Cross, the lowest possible death (Phil2.6-11), further lowered himself by going to the shadowy existence of Sheol-Hades where all the dead went.

The second significance is the common belief among Medieval theologians that before Jesus could come the gates of heaven were closed, so that even good people who died could not go to heaven and awaited the coming of the Messiah; further it is also the common doctrine that for salvation it is necessary to be united to Jesus by acknowledging that he came from the Father.

Read Jn 14.6 where Jesus during the last supper says to the disciples: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me”. So it was necessary for these good persons who had died before the coming of Jesus to have a sight of Jesus and have a chance to acknowledge him. This is what is indicated in I Pet 3.18-19 where it is said: “For Christ also died…but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison”. It should be obvious that these pious souls, among whom some would place Adam and Eve and all the Patriarchs and Old Testament saints, would all accept Jesus wholeheartedly and on the day of Resurrection would rise with him.

In this connection it is good to read a passage from the Gospel of St. Mathew which many do not pay serious attention. The passage is Mt 27.50-53 which speaks of the death of Jesus on the Cross and the immediate consequences “…the curtain of the temple was torn…the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tomb after his resurrection they went into the city and appeared to many”. It should also be clear to all of us that with the descent of Jesus to Sheol-Hades (“hell” in common parlance), it was emptied. All its inhabitants would have gone to heaven with Jesus!

“Hell” Properly Speaking:

However, do not confuse this Sheol-Hades with Gehenna which is, properly speaking, the eternal Hell and which will never be emptied, and which is point of no return. Jesus did not go to this hell! A simple descriptive definition of this eternal hell: “It is the voluntarily chosen definitive loss of everlasting life and communion with God and the Blessed”. Scripture, Church documents and the teaching of the Fathers and theologians point out that there is hell and its punishment for the Lost is immediately after death and particular judgment.

In the New Testament, Gehenna hell is mentioned in Mt (7 times); Mk (3 times); James (3.6). In the Synoptic:

Parables: Wheat and the cockle Mt 13.24-43 (v. 42 “they will throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth“. The next Mt 13.47-50 “…throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth“. The wedding feast: Mt 22.1-14 “…throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. The talents: Mt 25.14-30 “… throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. The Last Judgment: Mt 25.31-46 “… depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. Lazarus and Dives Lk 16.19-31: observe the mention of infinite distance between heaven and hell, the impossibility of crossing over from one to the other and the question of unquenchable fire.

b) Discourses: For sins against charity the liability is hell fire. Jesus says: “… if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire“[Mt 5:22]. Similar is the liability for sins against chastity. [Mt 5:28] “… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. Terrible would be the punishment for scandalizing the simple people: unquenchable fire and the worm that never dies (Cf. Mk 9.42-48). St. John the Evangelist: Jesus Christ is the Light and Life (Jn 1.4; 11.25; 14.6). He communicates Life to all who believe in him 3.16; 6.40; 12.36. The one who rejects Jesus would land himself in darkness and death 1.5; 3.19; 12.35+46; 8.51-52. The book of Revelation : The Lost would not have the Light of the Lamb 21.23. Their names are not found in the book of life and they would be thrown into the lake of fire 20.15. For them there remains only the lake of fire and sulphur 19.20; 20.9-10. St. Paul: Read Rm 2.5-10 especially v.8 which mentions “wrath and fury” for the Lost whereas for the good there would be eternal life (v.7). Phil 3.19 says that the enemies of the cross of Christ would have “destruction“. II Thess 1.6-10 mentions in v.9 “punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord”. Sinners would have no share in the kingdom I Cor 6.10; Gal 5.19-21. Hebrew 10.26-31 mentions in v.27 “a fury of fire”. All these images are not to be taken literally but they do have meaning such as pain, misery, regret, envy, disgust, groping, forever running away etc. Remember that God does not cast anyone into hell. It is freely chosen by the individual IN death.

– Reproduced with the  permission of the Editor of  ICM ( Indian Catholic Matters)

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