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Descendit ad inferos = Descended into hell??? Part 2

Last week I spoke about what we believe when we profess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended into hell” by looking at the Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You can find and read the first part here. This week let’s look at a few possible reasons, like language and history, why Christians seem more confused about this than in the past.

So how then did these two different understandings of an intermediary place of the dead, Sheol, and a place of eternal punishment for the wicked, Gehenna, become conflated into the single word “hell”? One answer could be the way in which we understand hell. St. Thomas Aquinas theorised that hell could consist of four different levels, with upper levels like Hades for the dead, a “Limbo of the Fathers”, and a lower level reserved for the wicked with the “Devil and his angels”. Certainly, one could then rightly understand both realities being summed up in the one word “hell”, though more theological nuance would be needed. 


The second answer is the difficulty of language, especially when it comes to translating words and concepts. When the Scriptures were first translated into English, the Greek and Hebrew words of “Sheol or Hades or Gehenna” used to convey these two different realities were all rendered simply into the English word “hell”. For instance, the first English translation of the bible, the “Wycliffe Bible”, has 122 instances of the word “hell”. Later translations would eventually have less and less, to the point today where only about 17 or so instances of Gehenna would be found, which is more commonly understood as “Hell”. English is an amazing language, but like all languages, has limitations.  


The Apostles’ Creed was translated from the Latin into English around this time when these distinctions of the underworld were missing, within the 16th century as the Protestant Reformation was underway and the various Reformers and those who followed them began to publish articles of faith into the various vernacular languages of the regions. When the King of England decided to break ties with Rome, the universal language of Latin in the Western Church began to be replaced by the English language. This is evident by the 39 Articles which are central to the Anglican Communion, were finalised in 1571, and refer “Of the going down of Christ into Hell.” in the third article.


The Old English origin and meaning of the word “hel” or “hell” just meant “to conceal” or “to cover” and had been used at times in reference to caverns or caves which were holes in the underground that were “concealed”. It’s no mere coincidence that “hole” and “hell” are spelled similarly in English. And certainly “hole” or “hell” would be an appropriate translation for the biblical notions of “grave” or “pit” that were used to speak about the reality of Sheol, the realm of the dead, or Hades for the Greeks. This is why English speakers had no issue with saying that Christ descended into hell, knowing that it referred to the “lower places”. This is why the English translation of the Apostles’ Creed with the phrase, “descended into hell”, was used by Anglicans from 1552 to 1979, when the language was altered.


The language was altered due to the more modern difficulties that arose as the English language itself changed. One of the big difficulties faced by theology and the communication of faith is that vernacular languages change a lot over time. This is because they are still “living”, and therefore take on new meanings. This is one of the benefits of what some might call a “dead” language, like Latin, is that it no longer changes due to not being largely used in society– although Latin is still considered the language of the Western church to this day, so I certainly wouldn’t call it dead, just timeless. I can’t even consider how much English has changed in various ways in my own lifetime, let alone hundreds of years. “Hell” as a word became more colloquially used to refer to Gehenna, the place of “eternal fire” than it did to Sheol, the “realm of the dead”. 


There are probably quite a few reasons for this, but perhaps one simple reason would be that many of the Protestant Reformers had totally rejected the Catholic understanding of Purgatory, instead teaching that a soul would either enter into eternal damnation with Hell or eternal reward with Heaven immediately. This meant that any reference to a sort of third option that a soul could enter before those final destinations would be considered problematic and therefore underplayed. Preaching and teaching then would have solely become focused on the two ends: either Heaven or Hell.

To be clear, the Church’s teaching on Jesus’ descent to the realm of the dead after his crucifixion are not the way the Church understands Purgatory; they are very different in that souls in Purgatory are already saved and destined for Heaven but need a purification and detachment from sin. This is different from the souls in Sheol who had not yet had the option to receive or reject the salvation won for them by Christ on the cross. But if one is decidedly against the notion of Purgatory, a state that is neither Heaven nor Hell, and is confused about it, as many still are, then Christ’s descent to the realm of the dead, or hell, will become less significant. John Calvin, for instance, reinterpreted the clause about Christ’s descent into hell to primarily refer to his total suffering on the cross. 


Another reason why the descend to the dead and hell may have been conflated is from the Old Testament. Pope Benedict XVI reflects on this in his Introduction to Christianity: “In truth – one thing is certain:  there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical.  Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is – hell.


This brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer.” (What a beautiful reflection by the now deceased Pope!)

I hope this two-part message was helpful to you. I actually started working on this last year around Easter, but never got around to finishing it. And when I did finish it this year, it seemed too big to put in a single bulletin, so we decided to make it two parts: a “what” and a “why”. You can be certain that I’ll be sharing one of my favourite ancient homilies as we get closer to Holy Week which recounts Jesus’ descent into hell to rescue the dead for Holy Saturday.


I am, in our Lord, yours.

Fr. Brian Trueman




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