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“And he preached to those souls, which were detained in Hades”

1 Peter 3:19
(from the Ancient Syriac Version of the NT – The Peshitta)

jesus-descend-into-hell

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christ descended into Hades after he died in order to preach to the Old Testament Saints who were held captive until he conquered sin and death. This teaching is extremely ancient and universal.  It is in the most ancient of Creeds, is taught by all the fathers East and West.  From the start of the Reformation, however, Protestant Christians (starting with Martin Luther) have doubted the local descent into the netherworld.  Popular modern theologians like Wayne Grudem and John Piper have called for the removal of the “descent clause” from the Apostles Creed.

This post is a collection of scriptural, patristic, and creedal witnesses to the truth of the local descent by Christ into the netherworld.

Outline of Resources

Teaching From the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Scriptures Supporting the Doctrine
Teachings of the Early Church Fathers
Ancient Creeds

From the Catechism of the catholic Church

“HE DESCENDED INTO HELL. ON THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN”

Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens.” The Apostles’ Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth:

Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Christ Descended into Hell

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”  It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

 ”The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”

IN BRIEF

By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14).

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.

From The Scriptures

  1. Ephesians 4:9   In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions of the earth?
  2. Acts 2:24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
  3. 1 Peter 3:19 …in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,
  4. 1 Peter 4:6  For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
  5. Hosea 13:14  Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.
  6. Zechariah 9:11  As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
  7. Colossians 2:15  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
  8. Sirach 24:4  I will penetrate to all the lower parts of the earth, and will behold all that sleep, and will enlighten all that hope in the Lord.

Teaching From the early church

Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Justin Martyr
St. Hippolytus
Rufinus
St. Gregory The Great
St. Augustine
St. Irenaeus
St. Leo The Great
Tertullian
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
St John Damascene
Socrates of Constantinople
St. John Chrysostom
St. Athanasius

Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday (c.260-320)

“What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

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.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘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.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

Source:  From An Ancient, on Holy Saturday

St. Ignatius of Antioch

How shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, having come, raised them from the dead.”

Source:  The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians

St. Justin Martyr

The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.”

Source: Dialogue with Trypho 72

St. Hippolytus

He showed all power given by the Father to the Son, who is ordained Lord of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, and Judge of all: of things in heaven, because He was born, the Word of God, before all (ages); and of things on earth, because He became man in the midst of men, to re-create our Adam through Himself; and of things under the earth, because He was also reckoned among the dead, preaching the Gospel to the souls of the saints, (and) by death overcoming death. (On the Antichrist, 26)

He also first preached to those in Hades, becoming a forerunner there when he was put to death by Herod, that there too he might intimate that the Saviour would descend to ransom the souls of the saints from the hand of death. 

Source: St. Hippolytus on the Anti-Christ

Tyrannius Rufinus (340-410)

“That He descended into hell is also evidently foretold in the Psalms, where it is said, You have brought Me also into the dust of the death. And again, What profit is there in my blood, when I shall have descended into corruption? And again, I descended into the deep mire, where there is no bottom. Moreover, John says, Are You He that shall come (into hell, without doubt), or do we look for another? Whence also Peter says that Christ being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit which dwells in Him, descended to the spirits who were shut up in prison, who in the days of Noah believed not, to preach unto them; where also what He did in hell is declared. Moreover, the Lord says by the Prophet, as though speaking of the future, You will not leave my soul in hell, neither will You suffer Your Holy One to see corruption. Which again, in prophetic language he speaks of as actually fulfilled, O Lord, You have brought my soul out of hell: You have saved me from them that go down into the pit.”

Source: Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed

St. Gregory The Great

“Moreover, after your departure I learned from information given me by my most beloved sons the deacons that your Love had said that our Almighty Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, when He descended into hell, saved all who there acknowledged Him as God, and delivered them from the pains due to them. With regard to this subject I desire that your Charity should think very differently. For, when He descended into hell, He delivered through His grace those only who both believed that He should come and observed His precepts in their lives.”

Source: Book VII, Letter XV

St. Augustine

“It is established beyond question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, descended into hell; for it is impossible to gainsay either that utterance of prophecy, You will not leave my soul in hell, — an utterance which Peter himself expounds in the Acts of the Apostles, lest anyone should venture to put upon it another interpretation—or the words of the same apostle, in which he affirms that the Lord loosed the pains of hell, in which it was not possible for Him to be holden.Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell? As to the difficulty which is found in reconciling the statement that the pains of hell were loosed by Him, with the fact that He had never begun to be in these pains as in bonds, and did not so loose them as if He had broken off chains by which He had been bound, this is easily removed when we understand that they were loosed in the same way as the snares of huntsmen may be loosed to prevent their holding, not because they have taken hold. It may also be understood as teaching us to believe Him to have loosed those pains which could not possibly hold Him, but which were holding those to whom He had resolved to grant deliverance.”

Source:  Letter 164

ST. IRENAEUS

As Jeremiah declares, The holy Lord remembered His dead Israel, who slept in the land of sepulture; and He descended to them to make known to them His salvation, that they might be saved. For this reason also were the eyes of the disciples weighed down when Christ’s passion was approaching; and when, in the first instance, the Lord found them sleeping, He let it pass—thus indicating the patience of God in regard to the state of slumber in which men lay; but coming the second time, He aroused them, and made them stand up, in token that His passion is the arousing of His sleeping disciples, on whose account He also descended into the lower parts of the earth, Ephesians 4:9 to behold with His eyes the state of those who were resting from their labours, in reference to whom He did also declare to the disciples: Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see and hear what you see and hear. Matthew 13:17 

Source:  Against Heresies.  Book 4 Chapter 22

St. Irenaeus

But the case was, that for three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were, as the prophet says concerning Him: And the Lord remembered His dead saints who slept formerly in the land of sepulture; and He descended to them, to rescue and save them. And the Lord Himself says, As Jonas remained three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth. Matthew 11:40 Then also the apostle says, But when He ascended, what is it but that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth?Ephesians 4:9 This, too, David says when prophesying of Him, And you have delivered my soul from the nethermost hell; and on His rising again the third day, He said to Mary, who was the first to see and to worship Him, Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to the disciples, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father, and unto your Father. John 20:17  If, then, the Lord observed the law of the dead, that He might become the first-begotten from the dead, and tarried until the third day in the lower parts of the earth; Ephesians 4:9 then afterwards rising in the flesh, so that He even showed the print of the nails to His disciples, He thus ascended to the Father;— [if all these things occurred, I say], how must these men not be put to confusion, who allege that the lower parts refer to this world of ours, but that their inner man, leaving the body here, ascends into the super-celestial place? For as the Lord went away in the midst of the shadow of death, where the souls of the dead were, yet afterwards arose in the body, and after the resurrection was taken up [into heaven], it is manifest that the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event; then receiving their bodies, and rising in their entirety, that is bodily, just as the Lord arose, they shall come thus into the presence of God. For no disciple is above the Master, but every one that is perfect shall be as his Master. Luke 6:40 As our Master, therefore, did not at once depart, taking flight [to heaven], but awaited the time of His resurrection prescribed by the Father, which had been also shown forth through Jonas, and rising again after three days was taken up [to heaven]; so ought we also to await the time of our resurrection prescribed by God and foretold by the prophets, and so, rising, be taken up, as many as the Lord shall account worthy of this [privilege].

Source:  Against Heresies.  Book 5 Chapter 31

ST Leo the Great

Furthermore in the matter which you placed last in your confidential letter, I am surprised that any intelligent Christian should be in difficulty as to whether when Christ descended to the realms below, his flesh rested in the tomb: for as it truly died and was buried, so it was truly raised the third day. For this the Lord Himself also had announced, saying to the Jews, destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up John 2:19 . Where the evangelist adds this comment: but this He spoke of the temple of His body. The truth of which the prophet David also had predicted, speaking in the person of the Lord and Saviour, and saying: Moreover my flesh also shall rest in hope; because You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor give Your Holy One to see corruption. From these words surely it is clear that the Lord’s flesh being buried, both truly rested and did not undergo corruption: because it was quickly revived by the return of the soul, and rose again. Not to believe this is blasphemous enough, and is undoubtedly of a piece with the doctrine of Manichæus and Priscillian, who with their blasphemous conceptions pretend to confess Christ, but only in such a way as to destroy the reality of His incarnation, and death, and resurrection.

Source:  Letter 15

Tertullian

With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself.

Source: A Treatise on the Soul

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

“And would you know that He laid not down His life by violence, nor yielded up the ghost against His will? He cried to the Father, saying, Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit Luke 23:46; I commend it, that I may take it again. And having said these things, He gave up the ghost Matthew 27:50; but not for any long time, for He quickly rose again from the dead.

34. The Sun was darkened, because of the Sun of Righteousness Malachi 4:2. Rocks were rent, because of the spiritual Rock. Tombs were opened, and the dead arose, because of Him who was free among the dead ; He sent forth His prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water Zechariah 9:11.”

Source: Catechetical Lecture 13

St John Damascene

The soul(7) when it was deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness(8) rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and shadow of death(9): in order that just as He brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind(1), and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe a reproach of their unbelief(2), so He might become the same to those in Hades(3): That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth(4). And thus after He had freed those who had been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, shewing us the way of resurrection.

Source:  An exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith

Socrates of Constantinople

‘We believe in one only and true God, the Father Almighty, the Creator and Framer of all things: and in one only-begotten Son of God, before all ages, before all beginning, before all conceivable time, and before all comprehensible thought, begotten without passion: by whom the ages were framed, and all things made: who was begotten as the only-begotten of the Father, only of only, God of God, like to the Father who begot him, according to the Scriptures: whose generation no one knows, but the Father only who begot him. We know that this his only-begotten Son came down from the heavens by his Father’s consent for the putting away of sin, was born of the Virgin Mary, conversed with his disciples, and fulfilled every dispensation according to the Father’s will: was crucified and died, and descended into the lower parts of the earth, and disposed matters there; at the sight of whom the (door-keepers of Hades trembled ): having arisen on the third day, he again conversed with his disciples, and after forty days were completed he ascended into the heavens, and is seated at the Father’s right hand; and at the last day he will come in his Father’s glory to render to every one according to his works.

Source: Church History

 St. John Chrysostom

When you hear these words, think not of a mere removal from one place to another; for what Paul establishes in the Epistle to the Philippians Philippians 2:5-8, that very argument is he also insisting upon here. In the same way as there, when exhorting them concerning lowliness, he brings forward Christ as an example, so does he here also, saying, He descended into the lower parts of the earth. For were not this so, this expression which he uses, He became obedient even unto death Philippians 2:8-9, were superfluous; whereas from His ascending, he implies His descent, and by the lower parts of the earth, he means death, according to the notions of men; as Jacob also said, Then shall you bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. Genesis 32:48 And again as it is in the Psalm, Lest I become like them that go down into the pit Psalm 143:7, that is like the dead. Why does he descant upon this region here? And of what captivity does he speak? Of that of the devil; for He took the tyrant captive, the devil, I mean, and death, and the curse, and sin. Behold His spoils and His trophies.  Now this, He ascended, what is it but that He also descended?  This strikes at Paul of Samosata and his school.  He that descended, is the same also that ascended far above all the Heavens, that He might fill all things.  He descended, says he, into the lower parts of the earth, beyond which there are none other: and He ascended up far above all things, to that place, beyond which there is none other. This is to show His divine energy, and supreme dominion. For indeed even of old had all things been filled.

Source: Homily 11 on Ephesians

St. Athanasius

We know that He, the Only-begotten Son of God, at the Father’s bidding came from the heavens for the abolishment of sin, and was born of the Virgin Mary, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled the Economy according to the Father’s will, and was crucified, and died and descended into the parts beneath the earth, and regulated the things there, Whom the gate-keepers of hell saw Job 38:17 and shuddered; and He rose from the dead the third day.

Source: History of the Councils

 Creeds

Apostles’ Creed

“This Creed is the spiritual seal, our heart’s meditation and an ever-present guardian; it is, unquestionably, the treasure of our soul.”

– Saint Ambrose.

  1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
  2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
  3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
  4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
  5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
  6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
  7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
  8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
  9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
  10. The forgiveness of sins:
  11. The resurrection of the body:
  12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

Athanasian Creed

  1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
  2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
  3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
  4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
  5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
  6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
  7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
  8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
  9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
  10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
  11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
  12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
  13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
  14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
  15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
  16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
  17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
  18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
  19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
  20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
  21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
  22.  The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
  23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
  24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
  25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
  26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
  27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.
  28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
  29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  30. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
  31. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
  32. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
  33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
  34. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
  35. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
  36. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
  37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ.
  38. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
  39. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
  40. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
  41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
  42. and shall give account of their own works.
  43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
  44. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved
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