Christ Descends Into Hell

Christ Descends Into Hell

A couple of days ago, just as we were experiencing a tiny heatwave up here in Washington State, I saw a church which had a sign saying, “Think it’s hot now? Got God?”

I was admittedly amused… after all, summer weather over here in Western Washington is normally very moderate and sunny with lovely blue skies! And it’s nothing compared to the weather that I grew up with in California. Comparing a sunny summer’s day in Washington to… hell? That seemed a bit much!

And then the sky turned orange and ash rained down.

It’s not as bad here as it is in other places around my state. I am not in any danger of the wildfires that are all around the state. Yet, at the same time, when I go outside, I can see ash fluttering down like tiny snowflakes. The sky is perpetually orange and you can look at the orange sun throughout the day without hurting your eyes. 

And I couldn’t help but think, “Think it’s smoky now? Got God?”

But, God is still present with us, even amidst the smoke and the fires! And so, I figured I would feature this interesting piece of art, called Christ’s Descent Into Hell:

Christ’s Descent Into Hell, by follower of Hiernonymus Bosch, c. 16th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States.

Inspired by the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell” this picture has a lot going on in it. It’s a grim picture, like many of Hiernonymus Bosch’s works generally are, and highly creative in layout the various tortures of hell. Smoke covers the sky, the fires are perpetually going, and it generally does not look like a great place to be.

Yet, there is hope! A trapdoor is opening up, crushing many guards of hell that are guarding the door, light pours out, and Christ appears, triumphantly in the style He is normally depicted in many resurrection pictures — Him garbed in the same clothes He was crucified in, yet holding a banner that unfurls with His coat of arms of the cross. The remaining guards flee in His presence. 

And look who is coming out to greet him! First, Adam and Eve are depicted, kneeling before Him. After them, other patriarchs and figures from the Old Testament are coming out to greet Jesus. Someone carries out an offering of a lamb — perhaps Abel or Abraham, Noah holds out his ark, Moses the tablets. Another man, possibly the good thief, carries his cross. And more flock to be with Jesus amidst this hellish landscape.

So, even though it’s a dismal place, Christ has come and is triumphant to lead the just to heaven!

Mind you, not everybody is having a great time. After all, some of the souls are damned and do not notice Jesus’ triumph, even though He might be near them. So, what’s going on? The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the scene this way:

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. 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”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” 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.

If you’re curious about the Catechism’s teaching of this or of the biblical citations they use, you can read more here

Anyway. If you can, please say a prayer for those battling the fires up here in the Northwest, and also for those who are suffering from the air quality! Breathing in ash is no fun.

Dear Jesus,

Thank You for facing the cross and triumphing over evil so that we may be one with You! Lead us along the narrow path to be with you. And bless all those who are facing fires or other natural disasters, and give them courage as they withstand this mighty force. 

Amen. 

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