Confused about Christ's descent into Hell


Catholics today say that the view that Christ suffered in Hell was a Calvinist innovation, and was only popularised in modern times due to Hans von Balthasar.

Yet, I recall reading in a 19th century critique of Christianity in general, that this was believed by Catholics. Not only that, but the Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas states:


There are four reasons why Christ together with His soul descended into hell. First, He wished to take upon Himself the entire punishment for our sin, and thus atone for its entire guilt. The punishment for the sin of man was not alone death of the body, but there was also a punishment of the soul, since the soul had its share in sin; and it was punished by being deprived of the beatific vision; and as yet no atonement had been offered whereby this punishment would be taken away. Therefore, before the coming of Christ all men, even the holy fathers after their death, descended into hell. Accordingly in order to take upon Himself most perfectly the punishment due to sinners, Christ not only suffered death, but also His soul descended into hell.[2] He, however, descended for a different cause than did the fathers; for they did so out of necessity and were of necessity taken there and detained, but Christ descended there of His own power and free will: “I am counted among them that go down to the pit; I am become as a man without help, free among the dead.”[3] The others were there as captives, but Christ was freely there.*"

If in fact this says what I think it perhaps says, then the teaching was far older than John Calvin. Any thoughts?

Thanks in advance and God bless.

Who on earth are “most Catholics”? I’ve have heard all kinds of people say all kinds of things, but never what you are saying “most Catholics” say. :confused:

It is a punishment not due to personal guilt, but for the sake of entering fully into the humanity’s corporate wound due to sin (which He took on in his flesh). Notice the slow descent Our Lord takes… it is perfectly described by the mandatum in John through the symbols (stepping down from the throne of Heaven, removing His outer glory, etc.). He was baptized in the lowest place on the planet. He wanted to go lower, and lower, and lower so that there could be no place left for sin to hide, so to speak.

Does this help?

Whoops, poor wording. Sorry, let me change that.

It’s not teaching I have a problem with, it’s whether the teaching is orthodox within the Church and whether it’s supported by Scripture/Tradition.


631 Jesus "descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens."476 The Apostles’ Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth:

Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.477
Paragraph 1. Christ Descended into Hell

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.478 This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: 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.479

633 Scripture calls the 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.480 Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”:481 "It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell."482 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.483

634 "The gospel was preached even to the dead."484 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.

635 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."485 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."486 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."487

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."488

636 By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14).

637 In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.

The idea that Christ suffered when he came among the dead after his crucifixion to give them his salvation is not a Catholic teaching.
I am puzzled about your source, since St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t write something called “The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Could you provide the actual source of this quotation?

That is correct but he did issue a series of oral catechetical instructions during his last ever Lenten season and these were used widely in teaching. They were later written down and in fact heavily influenced the Roman Catechism (The Catechism of the Council of Trent) with many passages being identical.
His instructions can be found in the bound version of The Catechetical Instructions of St Thomas Aquinas.
However, it does not mean everything Aquinas wrote or said was correct as we know now. Some was his opinion and not necessarily a Church teaching, e.g he did not believe in the Immaculate Conception but as it was not dogma in his day he was free to express his opinion. I’m pretty sure he would fall in line with Church teaching if he was alive when it became dogma.

As for the OP please note that not everything an individual Church Father was a Church teaching.

Even St. Thomas doesn’t seem to be saying that Jesus went to the Hell of the damned and suffered the punishments there, as some fringe Protestants believe. He mentions punishment, yes, but goes on to talk about the fact that no one before Jesus came could actually go to Heaven, and so they waited and hoped in a place we commonly call the Limbo of the Fathers.

That Jesus went there upon His death, suffering the common fate of all the dead up to that point, and subsequently liberated those souls from their state of waiting, is as far as I know still consonant with Catholic teaching on the line “He descended into Hell.”

Your quote doesn’t say that Christ suffered in hell, though… merely that his soul went there out of His own free will. The ‘suffering’ that’s mentioned is “deprivation of the beatific vision.” You realize that, as God, Jesus is the Beatific Vision (“whoever sees me sees the one who sent me” – John 12:45), right? Therefore, His appearance in hell was the appearance of the Beatific Vision for those who were there!

The Apostle’s Creed says:
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven.
But this is understood to mean Christ descended into HADES…not Hellfire. In Acts 2:25-31, in which David made a prophecy about Jesus in Psalm 16, Peter preaches to the crowds about the part of the Psalm that says the Messiah would “not remain in Hades, nor would His body see decay,” showing Jesus was in Hades. And Paul rejoices in 1 Corinthians 15:55 by cheering, “Where is your sting, O Death? Where is your victory, O Hades?”

Jesus did not suffer in hell, but the separation of His Body from His Soul meant His Soul had to go somewhere…and that’s why all the souls, good and bad, descended into the detainment of Hades. The punishment Aquinas is talking about here is the punishment of being naked, in the sense that your soul is running around without a body. Separation of body and soul is a hideous punishment/consequence, but it’s not the same as hellfire. Jesus freely came to experience the full range of humiliations that man is subject to.

When Protestants say Jesus descended into hell, they mean that Jesus WHILE ON THE CROSS was enduring the Father’s Wrath. But every single quote from Scripture and the Creed rejects this, placing the descent AFTER Jesus died.

1Peter 3:16 says he went to preach to the spirits in prison. He didn’t suffer there. Not sure how that came about.

This is very true. It should be noted that the idea of Hellfire as a place of eternal punishment is a result of a long evolution of ideas. The early Jewish idea is similar to the idea of Hades which is a place of waiting. In the Malay language in my country the Apostles Creed is translated as “he descended to a place people waits”. The Hebrew equivalent to Hades is Sheol (as in Ps 19). It is just a dark place where people go after death and wait.

It is only later around the time of Jesus that the idea of Hell as a place of punishment took root. The translation of such a place is different, being Gehanna. So when you read of hell in the Bible, you need to check whether it is Sheol or Gehanna. The former is more common in OT and the latter in NT.

By the third of fourth century the transition from Sheol to Gehanna was complete for the Judeo-Christian thinking (and Muslim as well). The Quran for instance has only reference to Gehanna (=Jahanam) and none for Sheol.

The Hellish part Sheol is deeper down into the earth, which is the Abyss.

You could be referring to an interim half-way concept of Hell of between Sheol and Gehanna. At one point, the concept of Sheol started to depart in stages from the Greek idea of Hades. Sheol had separate compartments for the place of waiting for the righteous and for the evil. Later the place of waiting for the evil became a place of punishment alongside the place of waiting for the righteous. Until eventually, it became a place of punishment for the evil only, leading later to the idea of Hell being a place of evil.

So really things are not necessary so straightforward. Some of these concepts co-existed rather than there being a straight changeover from one concept to the next. So, one can say that there are many shades between Sheol and Gehanna which waxed and waned depending on the intention of the author.

You see a similar evolution of the person of Satan from an agent of God to an adversary of God to the personification of evil. The Satan in Job is quite different from the one who tempted Jesus in the desert.






A Detached Account of the Descent into Hell

WHEN Jesus, after uttering a loud cry, expired, I saw his heavenly soul under the form of a bright meteor pierce the earth at the foot of the Cross, accompanied by the angel Gabriel and many other angels. His Divine nature continued united to his soul as well as to his body, which still remained hanging upon the Cross, but I cannot explain how this was, although I saw it plainly in my own mind. The place into which the soul of Jesus entered was divided into three parts, which appeared to me like three worlds; and I felt that they were round, and that each division was separated from the other by a hemisphere.

I beheld a bright and beautiful space opposite to Limbo; it was enamelled with flowers, delicious breezes wafted through it; and many souls were placed there before being admitted into Heaven after their deliverance from Purgatory. Limbo, the place where the souls were waiting for the Redemption, was divided into different compartments, and encompassed by a thick foggy atmosphere. Our Lord appeared radiant with light and surrounded by angels, who conducted him triumphantly between two of these compartments; the one on the left containing the patriarchs who lived before the time of Abraham, and that on the right those who lived between the days of Abraham and St. John Baptist. These souls did not at first recognise Jesus, but were filled nevertheless with sensations of joy and hope. There was not a spot in those narrow confines which did not, as it were, dilate with feelings of happiness. The passage of Jesus might be compared to the wafting of a breath of air, to a sudden flash of light, or to a shower of vivifying dew, but it was swift as a whirlwind. After passing through the two compartments, he reached a dark spot in which Adam and Eve were standing; he spoke to them, they prostrated and adored him in a perfect ecstasy of joy, and they immediately joined the band of angels, and accompanied our Lord to the compartment on the left, which contained the patriarchs who lived before Abraham. This compartment was a species of Purgatory, and a few evil spirits were wandering about among the souls and endeavouring to fill them with anxiety and alarm. The entrance through a species of door was closed, but the angels rapped, and I thought I heard them say, ‘Open these doors.’ When Jesus entered in triumph the demons dispersed, crying out at the same time, ‘What is there between thee and us? What art thou come to do here? Wilt thou crucify us likewise?’ The angels hunted them away, having first chained them. The poor souls confined in this place had only a slight presentiment and vague idea of the presence of Jesus; but the moment he told them that it was he himself, they burst out into acclamations of joy, and welcomed him with hymns of rapture and delight. The soul of our Lord then wended its way to the right, towards that part which really constituted Limbo; and there he met the soul of the good thief which angels were carrying to Abraham’s bosom, as also that of the bad thief being dragged by demons into Hell. Our Lord addressed a few words to both, and then entered Abraham’s bosom, accompanied by numerous angels and holy souls, and also by those demons who had been chained and expelled from the compartment.

This locality appeared to me more elevated than the surrounding parts; and I can only describe my sensations on entering it, by comparing them to those of a person coming suddenly into the interior of a church, after having been for some time in the burial vaults. The demons, who were strongly chained, were extremely loath to enter, and resisted to the utmost of their power, but the angels compelled them to go forward. All the just who had lived before the time of Christ were assembled there; the patriarch; Moses, the judges, and the kings on the left-hand side; and on the right side, the prophets, and the ancestors of our Lord, as also his near relations, such as Joachim, Anna, Joseph, Zacharias, Elizabeth, and John. There were no demons in this place, and the only discomfort that had been felt by those placed there was a longing desire for the accomplishment of the promise; and when our Lord entered they saluted him with joyful hymns of gratitude and thanksgiving for its fulfilment, they prostrated and adored him, and the evil spirits who had been dragged into Abraham’s bosom when our Lord entered were compelled to confess with shame that they were vanquished. Many of these holy souls were ordered by our Lord to return to the earth, re-enter their own bodies, and thus render a solemn and impressive testimony to the truth. continue-

it was at this moment that so many dead persons left their tombs in Jerusalem; I regarded them less in the light of dead persons risen again than as corpses put in motion by a divine power, and which, after having fulfilled the mission intrusted to them, were laid aside in the same manner as the insignia of office are taken off by a clerk when he has executed the orders of his superiors.

I next saw our Lord, with his triumphant procession, enter into a species of Purgatory which was filled with those good pagans who, having had a faint glimmering of the truth, had longed for its fulfilment: this Purgatory was very deep, and contained a few demons, as also some of the idols of the pagans. I saw the demons compelled to confess the deception they had practised with regard to these idols, and the souls of the poor pagans cast themselves at the feet of Jesus, and adored him with inexpressible joy: here, likewise, the demons were bound with chains and dragged away. I saw our Saviour perform many other actions; but I suffered so intensely at the same time, that I cannot recount them as I should have wished.


Finally, I beheld him approach to the centre of the great abyss, that is to say, to Hell itself; and the expression of his countenance was most severe.

The exterior of Hell was appalling and frightful; it was an immense, heavy-looking building, and the granite of which it was formed, although black, was of metallic brightness; and the dark and ponderous doors were secured with such terrible bolts that no one could behold them without trembling. Deep groans and cries of despair might be plainly distinguished even while the doors were tightly closed; but, 0, who can describe the dreadful yells and shrieks which burst upon the ear when the bolts were unfastened and the doors flung open; and, 0, who can depict the melancholy appearance of the inhabitants of this wretched place!

The form under which the Heavenly Jerusalem is generally represented in my visions is that of a beautiful and well-regulated city, and the different degrees of glory to which the elect are raised are demonstrated by the magnificence of their palaces, or the wonderful fruit and flowers with which the gardens are embellished. Hell is shown to me under the same form, but all within it is, on the contrary, close, confused, and crowded; every object tends to fill the mind with sensations of pain and grief; the marks of the wrath and vengeance of God are visible everywhere; despair, like a vulture, gnaws every heart, and discord and misery reign around. In the Heavenly Jerusalem all is peace and eternal harmony, the beginning, fulfilment, and end of everything being pure and perfect happiness; the city is filled with splendid buildings, decorated in such a manner as to charm every eye and enrapture every sense; the inhabitants of this delightful abode are overflowing with rapture and exultation, the gardens gay with lovely flowers, and the trees covered with delicious fruits which give eternal life. In the city of Hell nothing is to be seen but dismal dungeons, dark caverns, frightful deserts, fetid swamps filled with every imaginable species of poisonous and disgusting reptile. In Heaven you behold the happiness and peaceful union of the saints; in Hell, perpetual scenes of wretched discord, and every species of sin and corruption, either under the most horrible forms imaginable, or represented by different kinds of dreadful torments. All in this dreary abode tends to fill the mind with horror; not a word of comfort is heard or a consoling idea admitted; the one tremendous thought, that the justice of an all-powerful God inflicts on the damned nothing but what they have fully deserved is the absorbing tremendous conviction which weighs down each heart. Vice appears in its own, grim disgusting colours, being stripped of the mask under which it is hidden in this world, and the infernal viper is seen devouring those who have cherished or fostered it here below. In a word, Hell is the temple of anguish and despair, while the kingdom of God is the temple of peace and happiness. This is easy to understand when seen; but it is almost impossible to describe clearly.

If St Thomas was right and Jesus’ soul was deprived of the beatific vision when he went to the abode of the dead, perhaps he lost it on the cross. That would add new meaning to his words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

St Thomas didn’t say that “Jesus was deprived of the beatific vision.” Rather, he identifies that the punishment includes both physical (death) and spiritual (descent into hell) components. Moreover, since Christ wished to atone for it all, he underwent it all – he died physically, and he descended into hell.

However, St Thomas points out, ‘hell’ is a place of deprivation of beatific vision for humans, and they undergo it unwillingly. Christ, on the other hand, did not go there unwillingly, but through his own power and free will. Therefore, His descent into hell was – by its very nature – different than the descent into hell of any human. Therefore, we would say that its nature – that is, deprivation of the beatific vision – was different, too. Christ cannot be deprived of the beatific vision; and He was not, even when He descended into hell.

Is it possible that the view that Christ suffered in Hell arose among the Thomists in response to the Scotists’ theory of the atonement?

"*Human sin is not infinite in magnitude.

The satisfaction created by the execution death of Yeshua was also not infinite.

As a man, Yeshua only experienced a finite degree of suffering on the cross – roughly the same as was experienced by the two thieves who were executed with him, and the other approximately 10,000 who were crucified by the Romans during Yeshua’s lifetime.*"


Hence, why the Catechism attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas says:

First, He wished to take upon Himself the entire punishment for our sin, and thus atone for its entire guilt. The punishment for the sin of man was not alone death of the body, but there was also a punishment of the soul, since the soul had its share in sin; and it was punished by being deprived of the beatific vision; and as yet no atonement had been offered whereby this punishment would be taken away.

This argument – alone! – demonstrates why your notion (i.e., that Christ was deprived of the Beatific Vision) doesn’t hold up to reason. Jesus Christ is God; to say He was “deprived of the Beatific Vision” would mean that He lost His identity. That, in itself – that is, that God should lose His identity / nature – is itself an infinite injustice. Therefore, it would be far beyond what would be necessary to atone for a finite punishment.

In other words… no. Christ didn’t lose His nature when He descended into hell.


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