‘He descended into hell’: The key to the gates of death

In the Creed, we say about Christ’s journey that He “descended into hell.” What happened then?

Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine His triumph over death with the help of images that remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery.

The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death [in] the words of Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed; no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors.

But Christ has the key [see Rev 1:17–18]. His cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His cross, His radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became Man in order to die — this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death.

The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (Ps 139:12).

Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of His passion. His wounds, His suffering, have become power; they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2).

In the Incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings — with Adam. But only at this moment, when He accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does He bring the journey of the Incarnation to its completion. By His death He now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits Him, and brings them to the light.

But we may ask: What is the meaning of all this imagery? What was truly new in what happened on account of Christ? The human soul was created immortal — what exactly did Christ bring that was new?

The soul is indeed immortal, because man in a unique way remains in God’s memory and love, even after his fall. But his own powers are insufficient to lift him up to God. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights.

And yet, nothing else can satisfy man eternally, except being with God. An eternity without this union with God would be a punishment. Man cannot attain those heights on his own, yet he yearns for them. “Out of the depths I cry to you.” …

Only the risen Christ can bring us to complete union with God, to the place where our own powers are unable to bring us. Truly, Christ puts the lost sheep upon His shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to His Body we have life, and in communion with His Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free, and our life is hope.

This is an excerpt from “The Faith” by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Walk through the Apostles’ Creed with our beloved Benedict. With Lent just around the corner, this is a great time to study what we proclaim.