Thursday, August 18, 2005

Descended into Hell?

What does "He descended into hell" mean in the Apostle's Creed?

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, an angel is "in a place" by the application of his power to the place. Non-corporeal substances are not "contained" by the place they are in, but more correctly said to "virtually contain" the thing or place by their their angelic power. Similarly, St. Thomas implies that Christ's beatified soul is "in a place" by the application of His power to the place. His power virtually contains the thing or place by the power of His beatific soul. But Christ's soul can be said to apply power per suum effectum (through His effect) and per suum essentiam (through His essence). The Catholic Church condemened the teaching, arguably held by Peter Abelard, that it was only Christ's power that descended into hell. Yet, St. Thomas Aquinas asserted...

"Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, penetrated to all the lower parts of the earth, not passing through them locally with His soul, but by spreading the effects of His power [per suum effectum] in a measure to them all: yet so that He enlightened only the just [per suum essentiam]: because the text quoted continues: "And I will enlighten all that hope in the Lord." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 52, 2)

St. Thomas contends that Christ's soul, descended into hell by application of his power per suum effectum, to both the hell of the damned and the prison of the just. Yet, also asserted that Christ's soul, per suum essentum et effectiam descended into the prison of the just. It was by the application of his essential and effective power, according to Christ's soul, that "He visited 'interiorly by grace,' according to His Godhead." (ibid.)

God's power is everwhere by His effect, but not necessarily everywhere by His essence. So too with Christ's human soul, as it is united hypostatically to the Divine essence. Yet, it is certain that Christ's soul can be in more than one place per suum essentiam et effectum, unlike angelic essence, as a consequence of the hypostaic union with the Divine essence (e.g., real presence in the Eucharist, per suum essentiam et effectum). Therefore, Christ soul after bodily death and before resurrection can rightly be said to be "in the place" of damned, the place of the limbo of the fathers, and the place of heaven, all simultaneously, but in a different sense.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts, "In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him. (CCC 637)."

In his General Audience teaching (, John Paul II states, "The Apostle [Peter] adds however: "In spirit (Christ) went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Pt 3:19). This seems to indicate metaphorically the extension of Christ's salvation to the just men and women who had died before him." Peter's words are a figure of some deeper theological truth. 1 Peter 3:19 has not been interpreted in the same manner "everywhere, always, and by all" in the history of Catholicism nor has it been definitively interpreted. For example, St. Augustine taught that 1 Peter 3:19 was a metaphor or figure which meant the "prison" of the body while on earth, and the "preaching" was that of the Godhead and the Patriarch and Prophets of Judaism.

Under the papacy of St. Pius X, the following article describes "descended into hell" of the Creed in this manner:

"descended into hell ... was no doubt a remembrance of I Peter, iii, 19, as interpreted by Irenaeus and others, which caused their insertion." ( CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Apostles' Creed )
Yet, according to St. Thomas' testimony, 1 Pet 3:19 had not always been interpreted by the Church in the same sense:

"[St. John] Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iii): "As He evangelized them who are upon the earth, so did He those who were in hell"; not in order to convert unbelievers unto belief, but to put them to shame for their unbelief, since preaching cannot be understood otherwise than as the open manifesting of His Godhead. which was laid bare before them in the lower regions by His descending in power into hell. [St.] Augustine however, furnishes a better exposition of the text in his Epistle to Evodius quoted above, namely, that the preaching is not to be referred to Christ's descent into hell, but to the operation of His Godhead, to which He gave effect from the beginning of the world. Consequently, the sense is, that "to those (spirits) that were in prison"--that is, living in the mortal body, which is, as it were, the soul's prison-house--"by the spirit" of His Godhead "He came and preached" by internal inspirations, and from without by the admonitions spoken by the righteous: to those, I say, He preached "which had been some time incredulous," i.e. not believing in the preaching of Noe, "when they waited for the patience of God," whereby the chastisement of the Deluge was put off: accordingly (Peter) adds: "In the days of Noe, when the Ark was being built." "(St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 52, 2)
St. John Damascene seems to describe 1 Pet 3:19 differently that does St. Augustine. St. Thomas perfers St. Augustines metaphor to St. John's. Both claim "preaching" above as a metaphor for the "open manifesting of His Godhead" but in different ways and in different contexts. John Paul II seems to describe preaching in the same metaphorical sense.

St. Thomas asserted that Christ soul was "in the place" of the hell of the damned and the limbo of the fathers simultaneously.

"A thing is said to be in a place in two ways. First of all, through its effect, and in this way Christ descended into each of the hells, but in different manner. For going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin, He shed the light of glory everlasting. In another way a thing is said to be in a place through its essence: and in this way Christ's soul descended only into that part of hell wherein the just were detained. so that He visited them "in place," according to His soul, whom He visited "interiorly by grace," according to His Godhead. Accordingly, while remaining in one part of hell, He wrought this effect in a measure in every part of hell, just as while suffering in one part of the earth He delivered the whole world by His Passion." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 52, 2)
Consequently, "He descended into hell" may mean that Christ's beatified soul, "by application of His essence and power to the place", and not merely per suum effectum, but also per suum essentiam, "virtually contained" the souls of the just in limbus paternum, thereby visiting them "interiorly by grace," according to His Godhead.

God bless,



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