“Descended to the dead” or “Descended into Hell”

“Descended to the dead” or “Descended into Hell” February 3, 2012

One of the more arresting changes to the liturgy has been the introduction of “He descended into hell” into the creed.  We can go for a long time without hearing the word “hell” in Church and, now that we hear it every week, some of us can feel a little uncomfortable.  Not only that, but many will wonder why we would be “moving backwards” like this.  Isn’t this some indication of undoing the Council?  And, as I have recently heard asked by someone scandalized by the new language, why would Jesus need to go to hell anyway?

Several things can be said in response.  The first is to note that this is a translation change, not a theology change.  Nobody has changed the creed.  We simply don’t have the authority to do that.  And it has nothing to do with the Council.  Vatican II did not abolish the theology of hell.  Furthermore, we can ask, are those people wondering why Jesus would need to go to hell implying that they do know why he descended to the dead?

My guess is that they don’t.  My guess is that this is one of the many things we say over and over again and never really think about.  One advantage of the change is that it forces us to sit up and take notice of what we profess each week.  We do believe that Christ descended to the dead/to hell.  But what does this mean?  And why are both “descended into hell” and “descended to the dead” liturgically acceptable?  I mean, the simple fact that both have functioned as English translations of the same Latin phrase seems to indicate that their meanings are intimately related.

In this regard, I can think of nothing better than to recommend you pick up Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity for yourself or anyone you know who might be struggling with this question.  As you may know, this classic text is a mediation on the creed.  There are a beautiful 8 pages or so near the end of the book where Ratzinger addresses the descent into hell.  Here are the final two paragraphs:

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.  [Emphasis added]  Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.  Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev 20:14, for example).  But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened.  From this angle, I think, one can understand the images – which at first sight look so mythological – of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates.  The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened and the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt 27:52).  The door of death stands open since life – love – has dwelt in death.  (p. 301)

You might also like:  Why I Believe in Hell (and Purgatory too!)

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    I suppose, but wasn’t “descended into hell” always in the Apostles’ Creed which was said by every Rosary-saying devotee on the earth, regardless of Vatican II. What’s the diff? Also it went along with the Fatima prayer added after each decade of the Rosary: ” Oh my Jesus , save us from the fires of hell.” This was prayed pretty commonly in Church when I was involved.

    • brettsalkeld

      I’m not sure what percentage of Catholics were Rosary-saying devotees, and what percentage of those were sure to include the Fatima prayer. I was inspired to post this because I heard stories within my extended family of people being scandalized by the new language and thought that this would be helpful to people in a similar situation. If it helps a few Rosary-saying devotees who weren’t scandalized to better understand what they are affirming, all the better.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs


        Interesting! Well, since I am not “on the ground” anymore in Catholic circles I may be missing the fact that fewer people say the Rosary overall, even than when I was in. I would say it was quite common before. It becomes clearer and clearer that EWTN is presenting a rather hothouse view of everything. And I have clearly made a few mistakes in assuming that it represents anything overall about the current state. The Rosary issue is quite evocative of that. For before Rosary-saying was not a matter of right or left, but quite middle of the road. And thus many, if not most, were saying the Apostles’ Creed with ” he descended into hell” . Also, the Fatima prayer was very very common, almost ubiquitous. what I literally never heard were al the prayers from the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which are apparently quite de riguer, and has the enthusiasm of the Pope himself behind it. That the divine Mercy devotion also has an element of Catholic apocalypticism to it is much to be regretted. That is an element that Catholic were previously mostly not given to.

      • Jordan

        To Paul: The Rosary was rather ubiquitus in my community, an average rural community in southern Ontario, where I grew up in the 90’s. But I can only ever remember hearing ‘he descended to the dead’. So the change actually interferes with my familiarity with the Rosary as I learned it. We did tack on the Fatima prayer though.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    I suppose, but wasn’t “descended into hell” always in the Apostles’ Creed which was said by every Rosary-saying devotee on the earth, regardless of Vatican II. What’s the diff? Also it went along with the Fatima prayer added after each decade of the Rosary: ” Oh my Jesus , save us from the fires of hell.” This was prayed pretty commonly in Church when I was involved.

  • Ryan Klassen

    Great point Brett. As a Mennonite, we don’t use the creeds liturgically, but we do in catechesis (and I am more than familiar with them in an academic setting). I had never heard the phrase translated “descended to the dead.” It was always “descended into hell.” Nonetheless, your insight remains profound even from the other direction. Great line from Ratzinger. Shows the intrinsically pastoral nature of (good) theology.

  • Melody

    It had always been my understanding that this did not refer to the hell of the damned, but “Limbo of the Fathers”, which is a rather outdated wording to express that those who died before Christ came to earth were also included in the plan of salvation. Thanks for the quote from (then) Cardinal Ratzinger which offers further enlightenment.
    I also like this reading from the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday:
    “…Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son….I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.”
    Of course God, and those who have died, are outside of time, so this is a bit of a literary construct. We really don’t know what the timeline, or “eternity line” is or was. We have to be willing to live (and die) in the mystery, trusting in the goodness of God.

    • Dan

      I’ve heard that before, but I’ve always found it to be a rather dubious attempt to shave down a square peg until it fits into a round hole. I think Brett/Ratzingers is more coherent, though I do question how it fits in with old testament passages that refer to people in Sheol communicating with one another.

  • Devin

    If I may also recommend Mysterium Paschale by Von Balthasar as well? It also covers this theme and I believe has had some influence on Ratzinger’s thought.

    • brettsalkeld

      You sure can Devin. The only thing is that, with a little effort, most people can get through 8 pages of Ratzinger. 300 pages of Von B is a completely different matter!

    • bpeters1

      I find myself torn when I read passages like this from Ratzinger. On the one hand, the strong affirmation of Christ undergoing a real death, sharing in that state of lifelessness and bringing death within the orbit of the God-filled Christ-event is right on.

      But, on the other, Ratzinger (perhaps following Balthasar) can seem to identify this “state of death” with the category of “hell” and even God-abandonment. While he doesn’t press the latter as far as Balthasar does, movement in that direction worries me. For as celebrated as Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday is in some circles, I find the idea that the sinless Son was ultimately alienated from the Father in the depths of the sinners’ hell to be troubling. As Balthasar’s own theology demonstrates, such a move ends up dragging in talk of Christ literally “bearing” our sins in such a way that he undergoes our “punishment” as a “Substitute” (for the sinless One has to “get” to the depths of God-abandonment somehow or another).

      In fairness to Balthasar, such abandonment and punishment isn’t solely for juridical exaction, as it is for some advocates of “penal substitution” theory; rather, it’s about somehow bringing alienation and sinfulness into the sphere of Trinitarian love, within which all sin is, as it were, “incinerated.” Though this thinking is rather ingenious, it still worries me, as the “economic” manifestation of God’s “immanent” love ends up taking the form of alienation and abandonment (even if at the service of reconciliation).

      I’d much rather affirm an unequivocal unity between the first and second Persons throughout the whole Christ-event (J. Yocum has a great article on reading the so-called “cry of dereliction” along these lines) and affirm something like this: in saying that Christ descended into hell, we affirm a real dying, in which the God-man fully entered the state of death; “hell” as used here does not refer to some “abandonment” or alienation from the Father (something which continues to stand as a genuine possibility for those who finally and decisively make their lives a “No” to God), but rather the state of genuine lifelessness, from which Christ, united through the Spirit with both the the Father and the holy dead, emerges into eternal life.

      Again, I don’t mean to say that this passage from Ratzinger’s IC can’t be read in this way or that it is fully Balthasarian – but its language flirts with Balthasar’s enough to make me uncomfortable.

      • brettsalkeld

        My impression is that, for all his respect for Balthasar, Ratzinger deliberately refuses to go all the way with Balthasar on this. It strikes me that Balthasar’s theology, however rich, is too speculative and untraditional for a fellow like Ratzinger. My own opinion is that Ratzinger has managed to distill just enough from Balthasar to make the traditional doctrine coherent to a contemporary audience (Ratzinger’s great gift), but not so much that he butts up against the traditional understanding at any really salient point.

      • I actually appreciate Balthasar’s “speculations” on the inner-Trinitarian separation between Father and Son that marks/results from their ever-happening complete, self-emptying for each other and is, as he argues, the condition for the possibility of the Holy Saturday event of Christ’s god-forsakenness as the fullest economic manifestation of God’s life in salvation history.

  • Ronald King

    When one is suffering in isolation it is hell. It “feels” like eternity. What of the line about God being through all and in all? If hell is the absence of a connection to love can we be in hell yet be surrounded by love and unable to experience it for what seems like eternity? Since Christ opened the gates of hell, is there then hope for those who are “in hell” to experience God’s Love before the 2nd death?

  • Mark Gordon

    I always thought it was a reference to Sheol, the abode of the righteous dead in Judaism, as opposed the the place of final damnation.

  • The problem with most of this recent liturgical change in the English translation of our Catholic Mass is not only a matter of words and language.

    By reverting to older forms of language such as reintroducing the word “hell” into our profession of faith, the Catholic authorities have caused further confusion for many people who are still church going people and apparently attend Sunday Mass. As you clearly stated, Brett, this change of language and the resulting confusion reveals a more fundamental problem. Our problem is really the fundamental human problem of meaning. It has to do with the universal human search for meaning in existence. Referring back to your own words: “We do believe that Christ descended to the dead/to hell. But what does this mean?”

    Yes indeed. What does this mean?

    The passage from Ratzinger’s book may indeed help us to understand the meaning of the mystery of death from a Christian perspective, but what about the mystery of “hell” as a place of the damned, and not only the dead? Does such a place exist? Does God damn people forever to hell? Is that what we are affirming with the use of the word hell in our profession of faith?

    Brett, I may be wrong, but I suspect that the individual whom you mentioned was scandalized by the “new” language, (which is clearly old language making its way back into our liturgy again), was perhaps a person hoping for a better understanding of why the place of the damned after death was where Jesus would need to go after his own death and before his resurrection.

    Without a reasonable catechesis of these two meanings of the word “hell” it seems inappropriate and even irresponsible for our church authorities to revert to an older choice of English words and colloquial patterns of thought and speech which are no longer in current use in the Twenty first Century, given that English is a living dynamic language. Not so the Latin language, which is well known to be dead.

    A further related problem with the recent liturgical changes is one of Ecclesiology and contemporary human context for our liturgical prayer form which is the Mass or the Eucharistic liturgy. These prayers which we are now using at Sunday Mass seem awkward for many of us and out of step with the real world most of us live in today.

    The new liturgical prayers have us using language which is foreign to our everyday experience in human community. That may not be true in other languages such as Spanish or German or Polish etc. But it is certainly true for Anglophones living here in North America today. From what I understand, these changes were only to the English translations and not to other language translations from the Latin text. Which raises the question whether the committee who created these changes has seriously and sensitively taken into sufficient consideration the “hermeneutic” or meaning of the text, for the English users, and not simply translated as closely to the Latin language as possible? With all due respect, I need to ask whether we may perhaps be in danger of making the Latin text or the Latin ecclesiastical language into an idol? If so, then it seems we are verging on blasphemy, idolatry and all those things forbidden to the People of God since the time of Moses and the Decalogue.

  • Ronald King

    Balthasar intrigues me with just the small amount of reading I have done of his. Infinite love would seem to desire to bear all the sins of the world since infinite love created us to love and be loved. Infinite love would seem to have a compassionate awareness of how easy it is to lose ourselves in darkness. So it seems that God would go into the darkness to show us who are lost the light to his love. To go beyond the traditional is the risk one must take for God’s Love. I read somewhere that those who are on the Way will have a difficult time in this life. They will not seek someone who encourages their old self to survive, rather, they will seek someone who encourages to risk themselves. The more that they risk their annihilation the more chance they have of discovering within themselves that which is indestructible. It ends with, that is the spirit and gift of true awakening. I would expect nothing less from my Creator. I would go to die for my children if they were in danger of dying and never seeing them again. Are traditionalists afraid of exploring something of the unknown? I ask this with all sincerity because I know nothing about theologians.

  • Liam

    I guess I was puzzled about the connection of this to changes in the liturgy. In most US parishes, the so-called Nicene Creed is still the dominant creed, though permission to use the Apostles’s Creed in liturgy has been broadened.

    The traditional ikon of the Anastasis (in both the eastern and western iconographic traditions) shows the Harrowing of Hell – Christ trampling down Death by death, atop the doors and keys to Hell over Death itself, and welcoming the righteous dead (led by Adam and Eve) by the hand.

    What fries me is when numbskulls try to change the resurrection of the body in the Apostles Creed to the vaguer resurrection of the dead….

    • brettsalkeld

      Interesting. I’m a Canadian and we have always used the Apostles Creed more often, so maybe this isn’t as much of an issue in the States.