Descended to the Dead

So I’m cleaning out files from my work computer and I found one that would make a good, long-overdue post – enjoy! 🙂

The Apostle’s creed was written sometime in the 1st or 2nd century (compare it to the Nicene-Constantinople Creed [the one we say in church] which was composed around the 4th century). It was written at a time when several groups (Gnostics, Marcionites & Manicheans) were denying that Jesus was really human. They said that he was only pretending to be human, that he really didn’t suffer, and that he didn’t really die (among other incorrect teachings).

To counter this, church leaders at the time composed a creed – a set of beliefs that formed the core of Christianity. One of the beliefs they collectively added in was the line “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.” [That translation (“descended into hell”) is where my student’s initial question came in.]

First, we have a linguistic problem. Nowadays, “hell” refers to a place where damned souls reside – people who are turned away from God’s presence, people who have been condemned to eternal torment and torture. But when the creed was written, “hell” didn’t refer to anything like that – the word we now translate as “hell” was (in the original Greek) “Hades.” At that time, Hades was just a holding place for dead souls. It was not a place of torture, torment or eternal separation from God. It was more like a waiting room for dead people. Everyone – good or bad – went there.
The Latin translation of the Greek “hades” was “infernum”. Originally, it just meant something like “the lower place.” However, the English translation of infernum is “inferno”, which has connotations of eternal fire. Hades, in turn, was a translation of the Hebrew word “Sheol”, which again, just referred to the place where the dead went.

In all three cases, when the creed talks about Jesus descending into hell, a better translation for our times (which I use in my own prayers and which I try to get others to use) is to say that “Jesus descended into the dead.” Why is this important?

Remember that the creed was written in opposition to people who were saying that Jesus didn’t die. The creed, in effect, flatly said, “Yes, he did die. He didn’t faint, he wasn’t pretending, it wasn’t a hoax, he wasn’t acting – he really did die. He went to the place where all dead people go – Sheol, hades, the infernum . . . hell.”

As a quick historical aside, there was one other reference that Jesus made, and that was to Gehenna “the place where the fire is never quenched and the worm never dies.” Revelation also talks about the lake of fire, a place of eternal suffering. We get a lot of our modern notions of hell from these image. In Jesus’ time, Gehenna (the Valley of Hinnom) was Jerusalem‘s garbage pit. All the trash from Jerusalem was taken there and burned – there was always a fire burning. And, because there was so much trash, there were of course lots of flies and, therefore, lots of maggots (the “worms that never die”).
In short, then, the creed affirms that Jesus really did die, and that he really did go where all dead people go. Our Catholic faith further affirms that when Jesus did this, he fulfilled his mission of preaching to everyone, even people who were already dead when he came. When the resurrection of Jesus happened, all the just who were in Sheol entered into the presence of God (the “beatific vision”) for all eternity.

Blessings & Peace,