He descended into hell.
As we say, the death of Christ lies in the separation of the soul from the body, just as in the death of other human beings. But, the divinity was so indissolubly united to the humanity of Christ that, although body and soul were separated from each other, nonetheless the very divinity was always perfectly present both to the soul and the body. Therefore, the Son of God was both in the tomb with the body and descended into hell with the soul. And thus the holy apostles said: “he descended into hell.”
There are four reasons why Christ as a soul descended into hell. (1) To shoulder the full punishment of sin, and so expiate all of its guilt. The punishment of sin for humanity, however, was not only the death of the body, but also involved the soul, because sin also belonged to the soul. And thus before the coming of Christ, the soul after death descended into hell. In order that Christ completely shoulder the entire punishment due to sinners, he wishes not only to die, but also to descend into hell as a soul. Thus we read: “I am labeled with those going down into the depths.” (Psalm 87:5)
Nonetheless, Christ descended into hell in one way, and the fathers of old in another. The ancient fathers were conducted and detained there from necessity, and as if violently, whereas Christ went down in power and on his own initiative. And therefore the Psalm above continues: “I am made like a man without help, yet free among the dead.” (Psalm 87:5-6) The others who were dead were there as slaves but Christ was there as a free man.
(2) So that he would completely rescue all good people of past generations and his own friends who died in his lifetime. Christ indeed had his own friends not only in the upper world, but also in the underworld. People were friends of Christ in the world insofar as they had charity. In the underworld, however, there were many people, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, and other just and virtuous men, who departed with charity and with faith in the One who was to come. And therefore just as Christ visited his own friends in this world and rescued them through his own death, so he wanted to visit his own who were in hell, and to rescue them by descending to them: “I will penetrate the deepest parts of the Earth, and I will look upon all those who have died, and I will enlighten all those hoping in God” and so forth. (Ecclesiasticus 24:45)
(3) That he might completely triumph over the devil. Consider that someone perfectly triumphs over another when they not only conquer them in the open field but also snatch from them the heart of their own kingdom and their home. Christ, however, triumphed over the devil on the cross and he conquered him, whence he says, “Now is the judgment of the world, now is the judgment of the prince of this world,” that is, the evil, “and he will be tossed out,” from the world. (John 12:31) Therefore, in order to triumph completely, Christ wanted also to capture the heart of the devil’s kingdom, and to bind him in his own house, which was hell. Christ thus went down there and plundered all his goods; he bound the devil and stripped from him his own spoils: “Undoing the principalities and powers, he disgraced [them] with ease” and so forth. (Colossians 2:15)
Similarly, since Christ already had reigned sovereign in Heaven, and on Earth, he wished also to assume possession over hell, as Paul says: “In the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in Heaven, and on Earth, and in hell” and so forth. (Philippians 2:10) And in the last chapter of Mark we read: “and these signs will follow those who believe. In my name they will cast out demons.” (Mark 16:17)
(4) That he might free the saints who were in hell. Just as Christ wished to suffer death that he might free from death those living, so he wished to descend into hell that he might free from hell the saints who were there: “As for you, in the blood of the covenant, I will set free your captives from the dry depths.” (Zechariah 9:11) And in Hosea: “From the hand of death I will free them, from death I will redeem them. I will be your death, O death! I will be your sting, O hell!” and so forth. (Hosea 13:14) Although Christ completely destroyed death, nonetheless he did not all together destroy hell. Rather, Christ stung hell, because he did not free everyone from hell, but only those who were without mortal sin, that is, without original sin (from which they are cleansed as individuals by circumcision) and without actual [mortal] sin. These souls were there on account of the original sin of Adam, from which they could not be freed by nature but only by Christ. But he sent away those who were there in mortal sin and children who were not baptized. Therefore it is said: I will be your sting” and so forth.
It is clear therefore that Christ did descend into hell and why he did so.
From these considerations we can draw four conclusions for our own instruction. (1) Firm hope in God. No matter how anyone may be in affliction, they should not despair nor lose trust in the assistance of God. Nothing can be found so dire as being in hell. If Christ freed those who were in hell, everyone ought to trust greatly, if they are a friend of God, that they will be freed by God no matter what may be the tribulation: “She,” that is, wisdom, “did not abandon the just man when he was sold, but she went down with him into the pit and freed him from sinners.” (Wisdom 10:13) And because God helps especially God’s servants, anyone who serves God should be quite secure: “Anyone who fears God will not be alarmed, and will not panic, because God is their hope.” (Ecclesiasticus 34:16)
(2) We should become afraid of hell and drive away presumption. Although Christ suffered for sinners and did descend into hell, he nonetheless did not free everyone, but only those who were without mortal sin. As it is said: but those who died in mortal sin he sent away. Therefore, no one who died in mortal sin should hope for pardon, but should expect to be in hell just as long as the saints are in paradise, that is to say, forever: “And those on Christ’s left hand will go into eternal torment, the just, however, into everlasting life” and so forth. (Matthew 25:46)
(3) We should become careful. Christ descended as a soul into hell for our salvation, and hence we ought frequently to descend there by considering eternal punishment: “I said: in the middle of my days I will go to the gates of hell” and so forth. (Isaiah 38:10) Whoever frequently goes down to hell in thought during this life, will not go down there easily in death, because the consideration of hell draws one away from sin. We see how people in this world protect themselves against Earthly pain from evildoers; how much more ought they to protect themselves against the pain of hell, which is greater in duration as well as in bitterness: “And in all you do, remember the end of your days, and for eternity you will not sin: and so forth. (Ecclesiasticus 7:40)
(4) We are shown an example of love. Christ descended into hell in order to free those who were there. Consequently, we ought to go down to that place, that we might come to the aid of our own friends we are there, for they are not able to do anything. Therefore, we should support those who are in purgatory. The man who would not come to the aid of his friend who was in prison would be thoroughly callous. How much more unfeeling the man who does not come to the aid of a friend who is in purgatory. “Have pity on me, have pity on me at least you, my friends, because the hand of God has pressed upon me” and so forth. (Job 19:21) And in Ecclesisasticus we read: “From the dead you will not withdraw grace.” (7:37) And in Maccabees: “Therefore it is a holy and beneficial thought to pray for the dead, that they might be absolved from their sins” and so forth. (2 Maccabees 12:46)
We come to their assistance principally in three ways, as Augustine says: through masses, through almsgiving, and through prayers. Gregory adds a fourth way, through fasting. We should not wonder, because even in the world one friend can make satisfaction for another. We should understand the same thing about those in purgatory.
Let us pray to the Lord.