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Jesus Christ Descended into Hell,
and on the Third Day Rose Again from the Dead

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

This article of the creed affirms two truths of our Christian faith. It first declares that after Christ died, His soul separated from the body and visited the souls of the faithful departed in what theologically we call the Limbo of the Fathers. The second truth is Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave on Easter Sunday. Certainly, the Lord’s resurrection is far more important, but His descent “into hell” should be better known.

The Descent of Jesus Christ

What is confusing to many people is the expression, “He descended into hell.” Certainly, Christ did not descend into the eternal region of the damned. The original Latin of the Apostles’ Creed uses the words inferna or infernos, which literally mean “the lower regions.”

Consequently, after His death on Good Friday, the soul of Jesus went to visit those who had died from the dawn of human history and who were saved. Jewish believers by the time of Christ held that there was an abode of the departed just. They assumed it was a place or state of happiness, temporary, to be replaced by a permanent happiness when the Messiah came to establish His kingdom.

On the basis of this tradition, the Apostles’ Creed affirms the existence of a limbo for the good people who had died before Christ’s ascension into heaven. The soul of our Lord visited these faithful departed to reassure them that they were redeemed, and their entrance into heaven was near at hand.

Believing Christians take for granted that Christ rose physically from the dead. They believe that the resurrection is an event of recorded history; that on Good Friday, the body and soul of Jesus were separated when He expired on the Cross, and on Easter Sunday, His body and soul were reunited, never again to be separated by death.

Certainly the body of the risen Christ was—and is—a glorified body. It has all the qualities described by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. It is immortal and incapable of suffering; it is resplendent with beauty; it is not impeded by material objects and can move with a swiftness that depends only on the will; and, though perceptible to the senses, it is completely under the control of the spirit. Yet, with all these marvelous properties, the risen body of Christ is a real body. And the risen Savior is Jesus Christ in the fullness of His humanity and divinity.

Over the centuries, a litany of erroneous theories has been held about the resurrection of Christ. Their common denominator is the denial that the corpse which lay in the tomb rose from the grave as a living man who was literally Jesus Christ.

Some have claimed that Jesus never really died on Calvary. Others say that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and then proclaimed that He had actually risen from the tomb. Still others follow the modernist view that, “The resurrection of our Savior is not properly a fact of the historical order, but a belief of the purely supernatural order, which is neither proved nor provable. Christian consciousness derived it gradually from other data.” Condemned by Pope St. Pius X, this theory has many followers in our day.

Basic to a correct understanding of Christ’s resurrection is its historicity. Jesus really died. He was really buried. He really, factually, corporeally, geographically, and provably rose from the dead.

The risen Jesus ate and drank with His disciples. He spoke to them with human lips. “Why are you disturbed and why do doubts arise in your hearts,” He asked them. “See my hands and feet that it is I myself. Feel and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Lk 24:38-39).

The fact of Christ’s resurrection is attested to by more than five hundred eyewitnesses. Their personal experience and honesty made them incapable of inventing such a myth. They lived at a time when any effort to deceive would have been disavowed. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose by their testimony. Their moral courage under persecution and the threat of death can be explained only by their firm conviction of the objective truth of their message.

Christ’s physical resurrection is confirmed by the silence of the synagogue which had done everything to prevent deception; which could easily have discovered a deception, and which paid off the sleeping guards to claim that the dead body of Christ was stolen from the grave.

From Pentecost Sunday on, the early Church testified to her conviction that Jesus Christ had truly risen from the dead. It is the rational foundation of the Christian faith. The rise and growth of the Church without the resurrection would be a greater miracle than the resurrection itself.

Spiritual Implications

There are two basic implications to Christ’s physical resurrection, namely the Eucharist and our own resurrection from the dead.

At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and wine, and pronounced over them the words, “This is my body…This is my blood” (Mt. 26:26-28). He then told the apostles, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25).

The Holy Eucharist. Unless the risen Christ had a real body and real blood, there would be no Holy Eucharist. When we speak of the Real Presence, we mean that the Eucharist is the real Christ, the historical Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross and rose from the dead as He had foretold. Without the Real Presence, there would be no real Mass and no real Holy Communion. There must have been a real physical resurrection to make the Eucharist real on all three levels of the greatest sacrament of the New Law.

The Council of Trent defined as a revealed dogma that, “The body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist.” Consequently, the risen Christ in heaven and in the Eucharist is the whole Christ, with everything which makes Christ, Christ, including all the physical properties of his living body and blood.

“The flesh of Jesus is the flesh He received from the Virgin Mary,” says St. Augustine. It is this flesh, now glorified, that Christ offers in the Sacrifice of the Mass, that we adore in the Blessed Sacrament, and that we receive in Holy Communion.”

Crucifixion and Resurrection. There is another article of the Apostles’ Creed in which we profess to believe in “the resurrection of the body.” But the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday has a special meaning for all of us who are still living on earth in our bodies. Another name for Christ’s resurrection from the dead is His glorification.

Over the centuries of the Church’s history, she has always associated Christ’s mortal life and death here on earth with His rise to bodily immortality. The lessons for us are immense.

Like the Savior, we must be willing to endure bodily pain without complaining. This is easier said than done. The standard dictionary definition of complaining is to express discontent, or make an accusation over something that a person dislikes. We complain when we show our resentment at something that displeases us. We even speak of complaint as an allegation against someone whom we consider to have done something wrong.

Our lives here on earth are filled with varying degrees of pain. In the language of Christianity, pain is whatever is contrary to the human will. Being who we are, it is natural for us to complain when anything goes contrary to our will. The secret is to see God’s mysterious providence behind whatever bodily pain we may experience. These same bodies that are so prone to suffering here on earth are meant to be glorified in the life to come. But on one condition. We must be willing to endure mortal distress now, in time, if we hope to obtain immortal pleasure in a heavenly eternity.

We must be willing to control our natural desire for bodily pleasure if we expect to rise glorious from the grave on the last day. We have a fallen human nature, which I like to call a falling human nature. There are especially two bodily pleasures that must be restrained, which means enjoyed according to the will of God. When they are not controlled, we call them lust and gluttony. What are we saying? We are saying that chastity and abstinence are divinely ordained conditions for a glorious resurrection when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.

We must be willing to work hard, even to bodily fatigue, when justice or charity to others calls for such exertion. We dare not forget how, on the last day; Christ will separate the saved from the lost. Those who will rise to a glorious eternity will be the ones who had fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, provided lodging to the homeless, visited those who were sick and in prison. I have taught and counseled Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity for twenty-four years. One thing I can tell you. Their loving care for the poorest of the poor is exhausting to the body and the bodily emotions.

What an examination of conscience we should make every night, asking ourselves: “How tired am I from serving the needs of people that I have honestly tried to meet during the day?” We Americans, dare I say it, are among the laziest nations in the world. Let’s be honest. We are not angels, but human beings. Our practice of charity towards others is not only the interior disposition of soul in responding to people’s needs. It is also the external effort we expend in, I repeat, exhausting our muscles in the practice of selfless love.

If we hope to join the risen Christ in our glorified bodies, we must be willing to conform our bodily impulses to the circumstances in which God places us. Why does God send us oppressive heat or freezing cold? Why are we sometimes so tired that all we want to do is go to bed or drop into a soft chair and go to sleep? Why are our muscles so weary that the last thing we want to do is to use them for whatever task we know we should fulfill?

Why? Because most of the muscles of our body are voluntary. We can either stand or sit, either speak or be silent, either walk or remain motionless, either write or keep our hands to ourselves. So the list goes on. We said that we should conform our bodily impulses to the circumstances in which God places us. The key phrase is “God places us.” Everything, and I mean everything, in our lives is part of the providence of God. Our conformity to His will depends on our faith in seeing His will in what we casually call circumstances. There are no circumstances in our lives. They are all situations planned and provided by God to give us the opportunity of conforming our will to His.

We all look forward to that happy day when our Lord will say to us, “Come you blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” But let us be clear. Our final resurrection at the dawn of eternity depends on how much and how well we have prayed here on earth. I like to quote the statement of St. Patrick who said, “In a single day, I have prayed as many as a hundred times, and in the night almost as often.”

Don’t tell me that prayer is easy. It is demanding, not only on the spirit, but also, and with emphasis, on the body. Consequently, we must be willing to sacrifice bodily ease or convenience in order to pray as we should.

When we speak of sacrificing bodily ease in order to pray; this does not mean only or mainly ease of the bodily limbs, like the hands or feet. It especially means the sacrifice of bodily emotions, like the imagination. If there is one faculty of our internal senses that needs to be controlled in prayer, it is the imagination. This is so important that it deserves further explanation.

There are two kinds of imagination. One is the act or power of forming a mental image of something that is not present to the external senses and is a distraction to what we should have in mind. We can picture or hear, feel or smell or taste in our interior senses anything. And the word is anything.

Question. Are we to use our imagination when we pray? Yes, indeed. Let me quote at some length how St. Ignatius directs a person making the Spiritual Exercises, here in meditating on Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

This is a mental representation of the place. It will consist here in seeing in imagination the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Consider its length, its breadth; whether level, or through valleys and over hills. Observe also the place or cave where Christ is born; whether big or little; whether high or low; and how it is arranged.
This will consist in seeing the persons, namely, our Lady, St. Joseph, the maid, and the Child Jesus after His birth. I will make myself a poor little unworthy slave, as though slave, and as though present, look upon them, contemplate them, and serve them in their needs with all possible homage and reverence.

As is obvious, the proper use of our imagination is necessary for the practice of mental prayer. We use our wills to direct our internal senses to see and hear, in imagination indeed, what our meditation should be reflecting on as we pray.

However, when we pray, we are not only to use our imagination as just explained. We are also to control our imagination to keep it from roaming away from what should be on our minds when we pray. The popular name for this roaming imagination is distractions in prayer.

This calls for a great deal of discipline, so much so that I do not think there is a single aspect of the spiritual life that is more demanding on our human nature than to pray without allowing distractions to interfere with our prayerful contact with God.

We are talking about the need of sacrificing our bodily ease or convenience in order to pray as we should. The single most demanding bodily sacrifice we have to make in this world is the self-denial required to pray as we should and not allow our imagination to compete with centering our attention on God.

Finally, to merit the resurrection of our glorified bodies on the last day, we must be willing to undertake tasks that make heavy demands on our bodily strength. Let me be more clear. We should be ready to exert our bodily powers beyond what we are absolutely obliged to do under pain of sin.

There are such things as evangelical counsels. These are not strict obligations that are binding on the conscience to obey. They are invitations from our Lord to His followers, as it were, asking them to go beyond what they are bound to do.

We are not angels, but human beings. Unlike the Cherubim and Seraphim, we are not pure spirits. We have flesh and bone. To go beyond the call of duty, we must use not only our souls, but also our bodies.

In the measure that we are ready to exert ourselves in the service of God in using our bodily strength, in that measure, we are preparing for the final resurrection at the end of time.

All we have to do is reflect on Christ’s way of the cross to Calvary. Talk about using one’s bodily strength and doing the divine will. We teach in theology that Christ had to work a series of miracles on Good Friday to even remain alive during the agonizing hours between His condemnation by Pilate and His final expiration on the Cross.

On one traumatic occasion, Jesus told us, “If you wish to be my disciples, take up your daily cross and follow me.” This is no pious platitude. This is the heart of Christianity. Without Calvary, there would be no Easter Sunday. Without the crucifixion, there can be no glorification. Either we follow Christ the whole way in carrying our cross, with all its weight on the body, or the fifth article of the Apostles’ Creed is just so many words and offers no prospect of joining the risen Christ on our resurrection day.


“Lord Jesus, I believe that on the third day after your death on the cross, you rose from the dead and are now at the right hand of your heavenly Father in body and soul. I also believe that you are present in the Holy Eucharist, as the risen Savior, true God and true man. I believe that when I receive Holy Communion, I am receiving your glorified flesh and blood. I believe that when I pray before the Blessed Sacrament, I am speaking to You, as your apostle St. Thomas spoke when he said, ‘My Lord and my God.’ I believe that in every sacrifice of the Mass, You, the risen Lord, are offering Yourself as a channel for the graces we need to reach heaven.

All this I believe, my risen Lord, but I also know that I must follow in Your bloody footsteps in this valley of tears if I am to reach You, in my glorified body, in that heavenly home where You are waiting for me. Amen.”

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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