The Harrowing of Hell

I have a question relating to the descent into the underworld (ad infero or ad inferno).

The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that Jesus wished to preach to those in hell, and to bring the righteous, who had died before the resurrection, into the light of God.

How had these people made themselves righteous in the eyes of God without faith in Jesus? For Jews, was it through their obedience to the Laws of Moses? Or, for pagans, perhaps through their treatment of others?

If it was, however, on the basis of their acceptace or rejection of Jesus, then surely the fact of his preaching in hell would demonstrate his true nature, and every inhabitant of hades would naturally accept him?

Where am I going wrong?

The just were already separated from the damned in regards to their state.

Yes, that makes sense, but if they were already separated, on what basis was this separation made, if the criterion is not faith in Jesus?

Was it a judgement God made on the basis of their behaviour in life?

From the CCC:

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. 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” “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” 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.

“The Just” are those who followed the Mosaic Law before the coming of Christ.

As for those who were ignorant of the Law:

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law.

Given this, I do not find it impossible to hope that those ignorant of the Law were subjected to purification, such as purgatory, “so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

Though, I should say that as to you’re supposition that the “fact of his preaching in hell would demonstrate his true nature, and every inhabitant of hades would naturally accept him?”

The fallen angels rejected God even though they knew his true nature. Perhaps there were some souls who died outside of the law who still rejected the possibility of heaven even though they were given the chance.


Mortal sin. If they committed mortal sins they would go to Hell, unless they had perfect contrition*.

*It’s my understanding, although I’m not sure of this, that the penitential rituals of the Mosaic law sufficed to forgive mortal sins for which there was imperfect contrition.

The articulation that says “He descended into hell…” does not mean the hell of the damned. Other articulations of the creed says “He descended to the dead…” meaning He went to the place where the righteous were waiting.

God is infinitely perfect, and knows what is right and just. He knows who, be they Jews or pagans, were culpable of rejecting Him and those who were not. We do not have to bother our heads about this, but need to strive to grow in holiness with His grace.

This is such an important point. As with so many things, we simply cannot fathom or understand the mysteries of God’s nature, capabilities, and plans as we are. Perhaps when God is revealed to us in the Beatific Vision, we’ll have that, ‘Ohhhhh…!’ moment that we always strive for in understanding the minute details of reality and divinity.

Until then: Be stouthearted. Wait for the Lord.

Excellent – thanks for all the responses!

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