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)
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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.