What ‘descended into hell’ means in the Apostles’ Creed

Father Kenneth Doyle sits in the pews of the Mater Christi Parish Church Thursday morning Nov. 19, 2015 in Albany, N.Y. (Skip Dickstein/Times Union)

Question:

What does it mean when we say in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended into hell”? That statement is not used in the Nicene Creed. It bothers me so much that when I say the rosary, I substitute “limbo” for “hell.” (Charlottesville)

Answer:

Since Advent in 2011, when the third edition of the Roman Missal was put into use in the United States, parishes have had the option at Sunday Mass of using the Nicene Creed or the (shorter) Apostles’ Creed. I am not surprised that the words in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ’s descent into hell bother you, because the common understanding of Catholics has been that the word “hell” denotes the permanent abode of the devil and the damned, a place of eternal punishment from which there is no escape.

I’m not sure, though, that you’d want to substitute “limbo,” since limbo has a different meaning, has never been a fixed article of belief in the Church and is even more questionable today. (In years past, it was thought by most Catholics that children who died without being baptized went, not to be with God in heaven, but to a state of natural happiness called limbo. But in 2007, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, the Church’s International Theological Commission concluded that “there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved.”)

As to the phrase “descended into hell,” in early Christian times, the Hebrew word for hell (“Sheol”) was ambiguous; it could mean the place of the damned, but it was also used to include the place where the righteous awaited redemption.

Until Jesus had completed his death and resurrection, the just could not yet know the joy of being in God’s presence. So when the Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “descended into hell,” it means that he went to rescue the just who had already died, to take them with him to heaven.

Question:

I have often heard in church the prayer which goes, “May his/her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.”

Shouldn’t we also pray for the souls of those who may have struggled with their faith or who may never have had the opportunity to learn about God? Could we pray instead for “the souls of all the departed children of God,” rather than focusing only on those who were faithful? (Indianapolis)

Answer:

I couldn’t agree more: We should pray for all those who have passed from this life into eternity. And we do. Prompted by your question, I took a closer look at the four eucharistic prayers for the Mass, one of which is commonly selected for use at parish Masses. You might be comforted by the language.

In each of the four prayers, there is a section that commemorates the deceased. The first eucharistic prayer, I would agree, could be used to bolster your contention; that text says, “Remember also, Lord, your servants who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace. Grant them, O Lord, we pray, and all who sleep in Christ, a place of refreshment, light and peace.”

But the other three eucharistic prayers are more clear that the prayer is universal in scope. The second one says, “Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and all who have died in your mercy; welcome them into the light of your face.”

The third reads, “To our departed brothers and sisters and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance to your kingdom.” And the fourth eucharistic prayer is even more specific: “Remember also those who have died in the peace of your Christ and all the dead whose faith you alone have known.”

Question:

In reading Luke 2:39-40 and Matthew 2:13-15 during the Christmas season, it appears that there is a difference as to what happened after Jesus was born: Did the Holy Family flee to Egypt or did they return to Nazareth? (Indianapolis)

Answer:

Both. Following the birth of the Christ Child and the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s persecution, and then they eventually returned to Nazareth, which was their family’s home.

Attempts to find a contradiction in Luke’s and Matthew’s infancy accounts are based on a false understanding of the Gospels. None of the evangelists claimed to have written an exhaustive chronological account of every event in the life of Christ; they wrote for different audiences (Jewish Christians and gentile Christians) and highlighted different things.

My view — and this seems to harmonize the Gospel accounts of both Matthew and Luke — is that Jesus was presented in the Temple a few weeks after his birth; then the Holy Family fled to Egypt and, after the death of Herod, returned to Palestine and settled in Nazareth.

Nowhere does Luke say that they returned to Nazareth “immediately” after the birth of Jesus. Luke 2:39 simply says of Jesus, Mary and Joseph: “When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”

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