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Retreat on the Credo

Faith in Christ’s Descent into Hell and His Resurrection

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

This a profession of our faith in what Christ did after He was crucified and it contains two statements of revealed fact, namely, He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead.

First then Christ's descent into hell. It is taught by all the early creeds of Christendom following the lead of the Apostles' Creed. Evidently the word hell has two very different meanings. Its first meaning, the present one, is the lower regions also called the limbus patrum - the limbo of the fathers. It was the place where the souls of the just who died before Christ were detained and were waiting for the time of their redemption. The second meaning -hell as a place of eternal punishment for those who die estranged from God - is not the meaning in the Apostles' Creed.

What is the revealed foundation for Christ's visit to the limbo of the fathers after His death? It occurs in the first letter of St. Peter in a context, interestingly, where Peter is telling the Christians not to worry if they have to suffer. He's telling them the problem with pain is not the suffering; make sure you are suffering for the right reason. There is a suffering in innocence; there is a suffering for guilt. "Christ Himself, innocent though He was, had died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God. In the body He was put to death, in the spirit He was raised to life, and in the spirit He went to preach to the spirits in prison." (1Peter 3,18-19.) I dare say this is one of the least known passages in the New Testament.

Why then were the souls of the just detained in limbo? They were kept there because heaven remained closed through sin and was first to be opened by Christ. Even those who reach heaven now since Christ's ascension into heaven, the souls who are now saved are happy indeed but not as happy would be if they already had in heaven their bodies. There is such a thing as more happiness and less happiness without being unhappy.

Why did Christ descend into limbo? He did so for at least three reasons. First to comfort and console the souls of the just, revealing to them that their redemption was accomplished. After all, they were living by faith. Second, to reveal the fact that although dead in body, Christ was very alive in spirit. It was Christ Who visited those, as Peter says, in prison, Christ in His spirit united with the divinity visiting other spirits not yet taken into glory. And finally Christ visited these spirits to show forth His power and majesty even there in the so-called lower regions. You might say there were to be three such manifestations of Christ after His death. One in limbo - Christ in His soul; the second on earth - in body after the resurrection; and a third now in heaven in spirit and body.

The resurrection. All four evangelists and St. Paul teach that Christ rose from the dead on the third day. What actually occurred? We don't have the record of an eyewitness to Christ's rising from the dead. But we have something better. We have a description of all that took place with Christ's resurrection. First of all we have Christ's burial in the sealed tomb. It's all part of the divine logic for this cardinal mystery of our faith: God wanted to make sure that no one not even the worst skeptic would have any doubt that the person who rose from the dead had been dead, to make sure, He was buried. And even the enemies of Christ helped by having the tomb sealed.

Then to the everlasting credit of women, two holy women - Mary Magdalene and another Mary at the break of dawn went to the tomb Easter morning. The men were still back in Jerusalem. As St. Matthew describes what took place, there was a violent earthquake, the second in three days - one on Good Friday and this one on Easter Sunday. An angel descended from heaven, rolled away the stone and then in true angelic fashion, sat on it! Human beings can sit on a stone, but from all accounts, no mere human being could have rolled back that stone. His face, we are told, was like lightning. This is the very prosaic Matthew. Pilate had placed guards. The poor fellows! Matthew doesn't have to tell us, but He does: they were terrified. By that time the women got there. We are not quite sure how much of all of this the women saw, but they were scared too. The angel seemed to be forever telling people not to be afraid. So he told the women, "There is no need to be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus Who was crucified" - past tense -"He is not here, for He is risen as He said He would. Come and see the place where He lay." So on instruction they looked in, saw nothing. Then he told them, "Go quickly and tell His disciples He has risen from the dead."

No wonder Mary Magdalene is called apostola apostolorum - the apostle of the apostles. The rest is a matter of revealed history. All evangelists tell us something about Christ's appearances after the resurrection, what He said and what He did. Our two principal sources are Luke and John, and between the two, especially John. In fact so much so that all the evidence indicates John had finished his gospel one chapter less, then he decided: I'd better say more. A long discourse about Christ in His risen state visiting and convincing the disciples that "It's Me." And the perfect profession of Christ's divinity, the clearest, and most unmistakable statement in revelation that Jesus is divine, when the skeptic Thomas - this is John's record - after being called by the Savior, fell down and said, "My Lord and My God!"

How did Christ rise, as the Creed says, again, that is, back to life? He came forth glorious and immortal from the tomb, although the tomb was secured by a heavy stone and guarded by soldiers. Do you get the picture? Christ didn't have to move the stone. That was for a servant to perform. A service the angel did to allow people to get in. Christ didn't need to have the stone removed to get out. How thoughtful! We know why the stone was there: the foolish Pharisees. If the Christ Whom they crucified was what He claimed to be, no army of guards, no mountain of stones could have kept the Savior in the tomb. Talk about miscalculation!

Before we leave this we might ask ourselves: Did the Savior retain in His Body the marks of His wounds? Yes. He kept the marks of His wounds in His hands and His feet and His side. And Christian tradition teaches not only did He keep them while visible on earth during the forty days before the ascension, but He has those wounds in heaven now and will never lose them. Why? First of all to witness His conquest of sin. Remember, death is God's penalty for sin; had there been no sin no one would have died. There was sin, there is sin. Christ by His death expiated the sins of the whole human race. As evidence of His expiation He kept His wounds so that although glorified we, please God, who will be with Him for eternity, will be reminded of what He did for us.

Second, in witness of His victory over death. Surely this is God in human form. It is only God Who gives life, whether original life in our mother's womb or as in this case restored life in the person of Christ and our own restored life after we die.

Third, Christ retains His wounds as proof that He rose in the selfsame body in which He was crucified. No substitute, no alias, this is Jesus. A fourth reason, that He might display them on judgment day for the consolation of the just who have been saved by the wounds of Christ and the confusion of the wicked who had rejected God's mercy.

Finally, to be a constant reminder to us still on earth of Christ's great love for us even to dying for our sins. So much for the facts of faith. Now the lessons.

There are two distinct lessons for our spiritual life taught by each of the two mysteries of the fifth article of the Creed. One lesson from Christ's descent into hell and the other from His resurrection from the dead. First the descent. Christ descending into hell, as the Creed declares, teaches us that sin has consequences in this life but also in the life to come. Why were those who were saved, already redeemed, why were they nevertheless detained and not permitted to enter heavenly glory yet? Faith assures us it's because although we can safely say they were already saved and not in purgatory but not yet in heaven, delaying heaven was part of God's retribution for sin. Our practice of virtue then and patient acceptance of the Cross is rewarded partially, very partially in this life but mainly in the life to come.

Christ's descent also teaches us that sins are punished in this life partially but only very partially, mainly they are punished in the life to come. Why mainly in the life to come? Because the sufferings after death are more painful and more lasting and for a person who dies estranged from God they are eternal. Whatever else we believe about God, and there is a lot to believe about Him, let's not make the mistake of ignoring God's justice. I dare say this is the most neglected divine attribute in the world today. Of course God loves; His very name is love; but this is also a just God: He does punish. The lesson: to be sure that we don't allow God to punish us after death; but we strive as much as we can to accept whatever cross God gives us in order to be spared pain in eternity. What consummate folly to run away from the Cross! It's madness. The treasure of expiating sin now so we will not have to further and more painfully have to expiate in the life to come.

The spiritual implications of the resurrection are manifold. The feast of Easter Sunday is the central feast of the liturgical year. The mystery of the resurrection is the principal mystery on which everything else depends. No wonder St. Peter on the first Pentecost Sunday, having described Christ's crucifixion, then appealed to the resurrection as evidence that the One Whom the Jews had crucified was the Author of Life. How do we know He's the Author of life? Because He laid down His life and He took it up again. That's why we are so sure that the One we believe in as Man is our God.

The first implication therefore of the resurrection is to give us all the grounds we need for the credibility of our faith. Christ our Lord, as we know, all through His public life did two things: He preached and He worked miracles. He taught some very strange doctrine. He identified Himself as one with the Father. He said that without Him none of us could do anything on the road to salvation. He told us to love Him not only more than father and mother but even ourselves; otherwise we are not worthy of Him. He told His apostles at the Last Supper, holding bread in His hands, in the Aramaic even the verb is missing, "This, My Body; He held up a chalice of wine, again the verb is missing, "This, the chalice of My Blood." He commanded the married to remain faithful until death, and they are not permitted to remarry even where the partner is guilty of adultery. He promised some people the grace to forego marriage, and that's foregoing a lot. All of these and more are the fabric of the gospels. Beautiful, inspiring, but are they true? This then is the first function of the resurrection, to testify to the truth of all that Christ had taught. That's why all the enemies of Christianity, in fact even before the resurrection have feared. If this Jesus really rose from the dead then there is no option for the human mind except to submit - of course if it wants to. That's why St. Paul made it so plain: Unless Christ be risen from the dead, your faith and mine is vain and we of all people are the worst fools. In today's skeptical world we need to reassure ourselves that Christ did rise from the dead. In some very learned unbelieving nominally Catholic circles Christ's bodily resurrection from the dead is being called into question. I know exactly where those ideas are born: in hell.

What is a second lesson from Christ's resurrection? The Christ we are called upon to honor and worship is not only the Christ of literary memory - as we would read the exploits and achievements of another great man or woman. This Christ of ours is alive and well. Once God became Man He decided not only to redeem the world by His death, but He rose from the dead in order that God might remain Man for all eternity. Talk about an act of faith: God is now Man! He is a true human being with flesh and blood. He has human features, human hands and a human heart. Christ has feelings, honest. He has emotions, honest. That's the second lesson; the Christ we adore and follow is a living Christ.

Third lesson. This Christ of ours is not only in heaven, He is also on earth. That's what the Eucharist is all about. The Eucharist is a resurrection. When I teach the theology of the Eucharist I make sure my students including priests are very, very clear as to Who is really present in the Blessed Sacrament. The very terms we use - transubstantiation - may seem to imply that once bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ that what we have there is the substance of Christ's Body and Blood. Well we do. But we cannot see by any sensible perception the substance of anything. The substance of my hand is invisible. So the object of our faith - and this, I submit, is worth the retreat - the object of our faith in the Eucharist is not principally or primarily the fact that the substance of Christ's Body and Blood is present in the Eucharist. We believe that the whole Christ is present, which means with everything that makes Him Who He is. He has in the Eucharist all the physical properties that a human body possesses. Christ in the Eucharist has size and shape and stature and texture and color; He has a pair of eyes, a pair of hands. The only thing that's missing is our ability to perceive. But as far as Christ is concerned He is all there.

Fourth lesson. Christ's resurrection from the dead is the promise of our own resurrection on the last day. No one has improved on St. Paul's language in his first letter to the Corinthians, foretelling two things. Predicting how differently we shall be glorified - that's a fact - in heaven, Paul says star will differ from star. Some of us will be very bright, some bright but not so bright. What's the implication? Finally of course God decides. God could have made us all immaculately conceived. I don't have to tell you He didn't. But in large measure, besides the grace of God, we shall be more or less happy in heaven, more or less glorified depending on how well we have behaved on earth.

But St. Paul further tells us, under divine inspiration, that our glorified state in heaven will be a reflection of Christ's glorified state after the resurrection. "The sun has its brightness, the moon a different brightness, and the stars a different brightness, and the stars differ from each other in brightness. It is the same with the resurrection of the dead." (1Cor15,41) That's the lesson of working harder, so I might be more glorified in eternity. Then Paul goes on, "The thing that is sown is perishable but what is raised is imperishable." Talk about "perishable object" written all over us during life! of which the climax comes when we die. "The thing that is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious." God makes sure there is enough humiliating experience in our bodies during life to warrant St. Paul's term "contemptible." What will be raised will be glorious, which the Church calls "beautiful." No more cosmetics, no more finery, no more artificial embellishment. Because the essence of the glorified body is that the body sees the face of God and there is no such beauty as that of a body whose spirit beholds the Trinity.

"The thing that is sown is weak, what is raised is powerful." How sadly true and how very revealing. God wants to remind us in so many ways about our weakness. And just when we thought we were strongest an invisible microbe can lay us low. "When it is sown it embodies the soul, when it is raised it embodies the spirit." Because those in heaven who behold the face of God - the phrase the Church has defined as "face to face", "intuitive vision," it means that otherwise than the kind of knowledge that we have of God now, in heaven the soul beholds God with no creature between. Listen, we won't even have thoughts of God in heaven. Even that is a creature. We will have God. It will be God Himself, therefore, beheld by vision that will glorify our bodies. To encourage us during the very few short years that we should serve this Lord not only in spirit but in body too, wear ourselves out in serving this great God, because what He has in reserve for us is infinitely worth the effort we now make.

Conference transcription from a retreat
that Father Hardon gave in December, 1980 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
No reproductions shall be made without prior written permission.

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