Did Jesus Really Descend into Hell?

By Clement Harrold


In reciting the Apostles Creed, the Christian faithful affirm that Jesus “descended into hell” following His crucifixion and death. But is this literally the case, and does the Creed use the word “hell” in the same way that we understand it today?

The Apostles Creed uses hell in a broader sense than how we use it today. This is because, prior to Jesus’s death and resurrection, “hell” was a more generic word, known as sheol in Hebrew, or hades in Greek. And while this more generic understanding of hell included the souls of the damned, it wasn’t limited to them.

In ancient Jewish thought, the word “hell” was used to describe a differentiated reality involving two different spheres. The first of those spheres was composed of the souls of the damned who had irreparably decided against God, such that even Christ’s descent into hell could not save them.

In the New Testament, this is the hell which is sometimes described as gehenna, a word referring to one of the valleys outside Jerusalem which served as the giant garbage heap for the city. In Jesus’s day, gehenna was a vile, awful place in which human and animal waste was continually burning—a place, in other words, where the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9:48).

The other sphere of hell, by contrast, was composed of those souls who were on their way to heaven, but unable to enter it because Christ’s salvific work had not been completed. Hence this second sphere—the sphere of the just—included the limbo of the patriarchs (also known as Abraham’s bosom) and also purgatory.

Although some contemporary theologians (most famously, the 20th century Swiss priest Hans Urs von Balthasar) have tried to argue otherwise, the traditional understanding of the Church is that when Christ descended into hell, He went there to liberate only the souls in the second sphere, i.e. only the souls of the just, in order that they might gain access to heaven.

This means Jesus did not go to hell in order to redeem the souls of the damned. In fact, He could not redeem them, because in their free will they had already made a firm decision against Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him” (§633).

Following Christ’s emancipatory descent into hell, the way the Church spoke about hell began to change. Christ’s descent had ended the limbo of the patriarchs, and it had transformed purgatory from being a perpetual waiting room into being a real pathway to heaven. Although the gehenna part of hell remained, it was clear that thanks to the power of the cross, limbo and purgatory no longer had anything in common with gehenna.

For this reason, later Christian tradition began to use the word “hell” to describe only the permanent part of hell—the place of “punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7)—which endured after Christ’s work. This is what we mean by the word “hell” today. In the Apostles Creed, however, we are talking about “hell” as it existed prior to Christ’s descent. Prior to His descent, hell included not only gehenna but also limbo and purgatory. That is the hell which Christ descended into, and that is the hell which He redeemed.

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Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

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