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Jesus' three days redeeming the holy of old
He redeemed the dead upon his death
Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said this he breathed his last.
And behold, there was a great earthquake;
for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven,
approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.
His appearance was like lightning
and his clothing was white as snow.
From the moment when Jesus declared “It is finished” to the rolling back of the stone where he had been laid, most mystics, doctors, and fathers of the Church fail to offer the full itinerary for Jesus over those three days.
Image by Dorothe
Article 5 of the Catholic Catechism tells us in the title: "He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again."
Further details about Jesus descending to hell come from Paul in Ephesians, Chapter 4. Paul attempts to explain that Jesus took the prisoners held in hell (meaning everyone who had died up to that time) up to heaven. Most of us may have thought they were already there. It’s difficult to process thousands of years of holy people dying and sitting in a waiting lobby for God’s loving arms.
Therefore, it says: “He ascended* on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men.” What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended into the lower [regions] of the earth? The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.
Do a little reading and you’ll find we have another of those Protestant/Catholic divides in theology. The fundamentalist, non-orthodox Protestant requirement for salvation has always been faith alone. Their conclusion is that heaven took all of those Jesus visited upon the fullness of their faith. Jesus was their bus driver. The Catholic position is different.
Again, the Catechism explains:
633 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. 479 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": 480 "It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell." 481 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.
Arguments among theologians insist that the innocent, those needing baptism of Christ’s presence, and the damned represent different groups of people held in abeyance. A more common group of pre-Christ folks, those who lived lives of sin and repentance are the righteous who died in their attempts to walk in the law of Moses. Today, these are called sinners who repented. None, though, could have gone into heaven without their redeemer, the Christ. No matter how good they were, how repentant they might have been, they could not gain heaven without Jesus the Christ conquering death and coming to get them.
Important to Catholic theology is that others Jesus would have to leave behind in Hell.
The saving faith Protestant explanation and the repentant Catholic explanations differ on the necessity of Jesus to free them. Jesus’ “lower regions” visit was to mark the waiting saints and to greet them face to face. The good ones, we would say. These “just” ones, however, never received the Church’s sacramental experience of the faith. Jesus’ incarnation and ultimate resurrection needed to happen for them, just like it has to happen for us. And, Jesus needed to process them through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in effect conferring the breadth of sacraments (Baptism through Confirmation) in some cosmic/divine blessing.
I’m not making this up. The Catechism and the Apostle’s Creed confirm that Jesus descended into hell for this purpose. He did it specifically to preach “to those spirits that were in prison.” That phrase is from 1 Peter. Saint Athanasius quotes Peter later in the first century. He said that, “Christ’s body was laid in the sepulchre when He went to preach to those spirits who were in bondage, as Peter said.”
St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Athanasius in the Summa Theologica, giving us a provenance, a literary link from scripture to Church Tradition. Aquinas writes a five-point argument on the subject in the Summa.
I’ll single out just a few of his arguments on “Whether Christ went down into the hell of the lost?”
Aquinas said “Christ who is the Wisdom of God, went down even into the hell of the lost.” He did so to loosen “the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it." Further, Christ went to hell “in spirit preached to those spirits that were in prison.” Preaching was not required, Acquinas reckoned, for the just. So, he must have gone further, deeper into hell. “. . . it is clear the unbelievers were in the hell of the lost. Therefore Christ went down into the hell of the lost.”
Aquinas quotes Peter from Acts 2:24. That “God hath raised up Christ, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it.” Aquinas explains that “But there are no sorrows in the hell of the Fathers, nor in the hell of the children, since they are not punished with sensible pain on account of any actual sin, but only with the pain of loss on account of original sin.”
We have better records on Jesus’ activity in this one verse from Peter than we do on the three days of Jesus’ lower region pilgrimage. More is said later, however, about Peter’s verse and his concept of “regions.” The definition of hell’s “regions” influences theologians, storytellers, and painters for centuries. Where specifically did Jesus go?
Some insist he went to all four parts of hell.
Purgatory (abode of those being purified). I’ve always held the notion that Purgatory is actually within heaven. But before Jesus’ visit to the place (according to very interesting, but convoluted theology), Purgatory resided in the waiting place where hell also exists.
Limbo of the Fathers (abode of the Old Testament faithful – now it’s empty), distinct from children’s Limbo, was like a huge lobby, waiting for heaven’s digs to be available. Jesus needed to rejoin his Father in heaven for them to get their mansion paperwork.
Limbo of the Children (abode for unbaptized children under the age of reason), which is technically no longer a thing. The idea of limbo was a speculative theory derived in part from belief in the necessity of baptism.
Did Jesus go to the abode of the damned (which we today call the confines of hell) is“Gehenna,” the toasty eternal part of damnation (Hans Urs Von Balthazar). As noted above, Aquinas also argued that he did.
The three days of Jesus’ travels into the nether places is remarkable no matter which spots he decided to pull over and chat with the inhabitants.
The data on where Jesus went and who he gathered up isn’t really clear on any of this, other than the importance of Jesus gathering up the holy dead from the lobby of no face-to-face with God. He provides the face-to-face welcome, indwelling, and cleansing and takes them to heaven. What a cosmic adventure it was for untold millions of the “just” held in waiting for the Redeemer to be all brought to heaven in those 3 days.