On Holy Saturday, we pray thus: "Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, cuius Unigenitus ad inferiora terrae descendit, unde et gloriosus ascendit. (Almighty, every-living God, whose only-begotten Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory)."
We may quarrel over the translation of "ad inferiora terrae (to the lower part of the earth)" as "to the realm of the dead." But the key images not to be missed are the abode of the dead (descendit ad inferna [Apostles' Creed]), namely, hell, and the fact that Christ did not remain there, but "ascended - ascendit" into glory - ascendit in caelum - Christ's victory over death.
The fundamental problem which the doctrine of "He descended into hell" addresses is the question of the recipients of God's gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Were those saved only the living, or the living and the dead? The "dead" at issue here are those good people who died before the coming of Christ; those believed to be "in the realm of the dead" or Sheol (Psalms 16.10; 30.3, 9; 88.3-6).
The origin and core message of St. Paul's gospel is the resurrection faith: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
The mystery of faith - Christ died, was buried and rose - points to God's saving mystery in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the belief that Christ died "for us" makes the efficacy of Christ's death potent for all generations, past and present.
How about those who died before the advent of Christ? To them applies the saying: "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Ephesians 5.14).
The "sleepers" of hell were visited by Christ, in order to bring salvation to them. The hope of the resurrection in Judaism predated the advent of Christ. The early Christians' belief in the resurrection was inscribed on baptismal liturgies (Ephesians 4.17-5.20), from which the fragment "sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" was taken and inserted into Ephesians 5.
In Romans 6, St. Paul presents us with a baptismal theology. This theology takes the form of solidarity: all the baptized, through the ritual of Baptism, dramatize their sharing (solidarity) in Christ's death and resurrection.
This theology of solidarity, in order to show the link between Baptism and the death and resurrection of Christ, was derived from the actual death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In other words, Jesus Christ, though without sin, died like a sinner, in solidarity with sinners; died and was buried, in solidarity with all the dead, but he rose to live, so that he might bring resurrection and life to all the dead, and all who will die in him.
The first epistle of Peter instructs us about the mission of Christ to hell: "He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3.18-20). "For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does" (1 Peter 4.6).
Everything Christ underwent, he did for us. Vatican II's document, Gaudium et Spes 22, puts it so beautifully when it asserts that, "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light."
Jesus Christ is the mirror through which we see our faith. If he was in solidarity with us in all things except sin, one of the purposes of this solidarity is to bring salvation to humanity, in addition to revealing the Father to us.
Consequently, "He descended into hell" does not talk about the condemnation of Christ, as unrepentant sinners would, but it speaks to the triumph of Christ over the grave, life over death.
Yes, even death itself will be conquered some day (1 Corinthians 15.26) - Christ's resurrection is its foretaste.
Yes, we are destined for immortality, and Christ is our guarantee for that. Yes, salvation is offered to all, subject to individual's decision to receive or reject it.
Spiritan Father Ayodele Ayeni is a sessional lecturer at Newman Theological College and pastor of Mary Help of Christians (Chinese) Parish in Edmonton.