descent

Where is Christ after he dies on Friday afternoon and before he rises on Easter Sunday? Both Scripture and Tradition answer this question. Consider the following from a Second Century Sermon and also a mediation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

An Ancient Sermon:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” [From an Ancient Holy Saturday Homily ca 2nd Century]

Nothing could be more beautiful than that line addressed to Adam and Eve: I am your God, who, for your sake, became your Son.”

Scripture also testifies to Christ’s descent to the dead and what he did: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison….For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 3:18; 1 Peter 4:6).

Consider also this from the Catechism on Christ’s descent to the dead, which I summarize and excerpt from CCC # 631-635

[The] first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell [is] that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.

But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there [1 Peter 3:18-19; 1 Peter 4:6; Heb. 13:20]. Scripture calls [this] abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew, or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God [1 Peter 3:18-19].

Such [was] the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they awaited the Redeemer: It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior …whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”[cf Psalms 89:49; 1 Sam. 28:19; Ezek 32:17ff; Luke 16:22-26]

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.

[So] the gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”[1 Peter 4:6] Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying, destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” [John 5:25; Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9].

Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”[Heb 2:14-15; Acts 3:15]

13 Responses

  1. Reginaldus says:

    Msgr., Wonderful quotations, especially that ancient Holy Saturday Homily! This is such an important point … Christ’s victorious descent … something which even some so-called conservative theologians seem to have forgotten (specifically Balthasar).

    One small point … Where was Jesus between his death and resurrection? He was in two places: He was in hell through his soul, and he was in the tomb through his body. For Christ remained hypostatically united to both his soul and his dead flesh. (see CCC 624-630). I just posted on this over at New Theological Movement: “For three days, God was a dead body and a copse was God.” I think our two posts are quite complimentary! :)

    Peace and blessings to you. +

  2. Nick says:

    And to compliment your post, here’s the Pope’s response to the question of where Jesus is:

    Q. Holy Father, the next question is on the theme of Jesus’ death and resurrection and comes from Italy. I will read it to you: “Your Holiness, what is Jesus doing in the time between His death and resurrection? Seeing that in reciting the Creed it says that Jesus, after His death, descended into Hell, should we think that that will also happen to us, after death, before going to heaven?”

    A. First of all, this descent of Jesus’ soul should not be imagined as a geographical or a spatial trip, from one continent to another. It is the soul’s journey. We have to remember that Jesus’ soul always touches the Father, it is always in contact with the Father but, at the same time, this human soul extends to the very borders of the human being. In this sense it goes into the depths, into the lost places, to where all who do not arrive at their life’s goal go, thus transcending the continents of the past. This word about the Lord’s descent into Hell mainly means that Jesus reaches even the past, that the effectiveness of the Redemption does not begin in the year 0 or 30, but also goes to the past, embraces the past, all men and women of all time. The Church Fathers say, with a very beautiful image, that Jesus takes Adam and Eve, that is, humanity, by the hand and guides them forward, guides them on high. He thus creates access to God because humanity, on its own cannot arrive at God’s level. He himself, being man, can take humanity by the hand and open the access. To what? To the reality we call Heaven. So this descent into Hell, that is, into the depth of the human being, into humanity’s past, is an essential part of Jesus’ mission, of His mission as Redeemer, and does not apply to us. Our lives are different. We are already redeemed by the Lord and we arrive before the Judge, after our death, under Jesus’ gaze. On one had, this gaze will be purifying: I think that all of us, in greater or lesser measure, are in need of purification. Jesus’ gaze purifies us, thus making us capable of living with God, of living with the Saints, and above all of living in communion with those dear to us who have preceded us.

  3. Blake Helgothder says:

    Msgr.,

    This brings up a question I have about grace in the time before Christ. How is it that grace was given to those who lived before Christ, or was it? If so, does that mena salvation was possible before Christ? That sounds crazy. I know that for Mary, the grace of the Cross was applied back in time. However, it seems that we believe there were just souls before the time of Christ but we know that it is only by grace that we are justified (made just). Does the effectiveness of the Redemption going to the past mean that those before Christ participated in the New Covenant?

  4. Steven Reyes says:

    Blake,
    Before the time of Christ people were saved by grace, the grace won over for us by Christ’s Passion which extends beyond the boundaries of time in its effect (reconciliation of man to God). I think if you read Nick’s comment above quoting the Pope’s words on this that your question can largely be answered.

    A person is made just by being given the effects of the Cross (sanctifying grace) through the sacrament of baptism (see Romans 6) and through the supernatural faith, hope, and charity that makes us adopted sons of God (just). Prior to the sacrament of baptism however the Old Testament saints could be given sanctifying grace through other means (God’s gift to them) and their faith would be in the Messiah to come. These Old Testament saints would probably be no different than the saints of the New Testament other than having received the sacraments. Christ’s cross justifies those before Him and those after Him because it wins over grace for the salvation of mankind, all we have to do is accept it (today through baptism) and live out a holy life of obedience to Him to grow in faith and holiness.

  5. Dave Affinito says:

    While on the Cross Jesus said to one of the criminals: “I assure you: THIS DAY you will be with me in paradise.”
    Luke 23:43

    • Linus says:

      The Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity is always in paradise, in fact, I think it would be correct to say He is everywhere. One could also say that ” This Day ” for God is eternity. After death there are no ” days.” So Christ was speaking in human terms so we could understand what he meant. What he meant was that at the end of ” This Day ” paradise would begin where He , the Second Person, always is. While present in the bosom of the Father in eternity, he can at the same moment be hypostatically united with the human nature of Christ on the cross. No problem here.

  6. Piotr says:

    In Luke 23:43 Jesus says to the criminal: Truly, I say to you that TODAY you will be with me in paradise. This passage gives me a lot of hope, because I am much closer in sin to him than to Jesus. I think that Jesus visited many places before he rose again.

  7. Barb Garfield says:

    I always look forward to this Ancient Sermon in Holy Saturday’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours.
    And it always brings tears.

  8. Gregory Murphy says:

    I think it can help us to escape the linear human notions of time – and to help us contemplate a little more deeply on the nature (wrong word, perhaps) or the shape of eternity and timelessness – if we imagine a carousel, a spinning top or something such of that ilk:

    Imagine that Christ is the central pivot around which everything revolves. The base point of the pivot is Christ’s death; the central point of the pivot, the bulkhead that connects to the machinery at the fulcrum point is the Incarnation; the pinnacle and crowning point of the pivot is the Resurrection. God the Father created the mechanism, Christ provides the pivot, the Holy Ghost provides the motion. Now imagine that the spokes connecting from the circular mechanism at the centre to the outer circumference are the many titles of Our Blessed Lady; and then, positioned at various alloted points of the circumference that revolves around the pivot there stand Adam, Noah, Moses, the Prophets, John the Baptist, the Apostles, all the generations after the Fall and prior to the Resurrection, and then, diameterically opposite the pre-Resurrection peoples, there are those Baptised in Christ of the last 2,000 years (us). Thus all of humanity revolves around Christ in equal motion, in an equal state, constantly (whether physically alive or not; think night and day; sunlight and darkness) and we are all exactly the same distance from the Gospel events, whether our earthly stay was 3,000 years BC or 1,000 or 2,000 years AD. We are no nearer the events of that first Easter or no further away than anyone else is or has been. Thus, for example, it is easier, by envisioning this revolving, not linear, nature of timelessness, that constant eternity, for us to consider how Christ’s Sacrifice, once and for all on the Cross (the centre) was able to reach “back” (as we perceive it) to the Apostles at the Last Supper but reached “forward” to our generations. However, the Apostles neither travelled forward in time, as it were, nor do we travel back. For we are all the same distance from the Cross, the pivot, the central mechanism, no matter which point on the circumference we occupy. We just occupy different stations.

    It is hard to detach ourselves from our linear mindset of time. However, the circular, wheeling motion of imagining timelessness, certainly helps. Christ offers the chance for all things to be equal in Him, there is no first and no last. Only Him. He is the pivot. He is the first, He is the Last. And we all revolve around Him.

  9. Rick Poveromo says:

    Stop trying to know everything to the last detail. Christ was where He was. He does not need our 2 cents. Relax. Beleive.

  10. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Ever wonder what Adam and Eve actually did? Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.

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