“Ask a Priest: Did Jesus Only Release the Just Souls After His Death?”

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Q: When Jesus died, he went to “the place of the dead to release the just.” Were there “unjust” in the place of the dead at the time of the Crucifixion? Did Jesus only release the just? And if so, what happened to them? Did they then go to purgatory? Also, did purgatory begin after the Crucifixion? Did purgatory begin when hell began? Thank you for your answers. -D.F.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: When Jesus “descended into hell” (as the Apostles’ Creed says) he went to the abode of the dead, to release the just souls who needed him to open the gates of heaven for them. This abode could be thought of as a kind of purgatory. The unjust were those already suffering eternal damnation. Jesus did not release them.

The Catechism in No. 633 says, “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.”

As to what happened, and when, to all the just is hard to say. Some of the just could have entered heaven immediately. Whether others lingered longer, in a purgatorial state, is harder to tell. Suffice it to say that all of the just souls eventually get to heaven. Certainly the unjust remained in hell, the state of eternal damnation.

Some scholars apparently hold that the Sheol or Gehenna of the Old Testament could be equated with purgatory in the New Testament. The problem is that terms are sometimes a bit vague, with different connotations, in the Old Testament.

It seems reasonable to think that souls from the Old Testament who were basically just but who had flaws would have suffered something after death and before the opening of the gates of heaven. In that sense, purgatory could be akin to the Sheol of the Old Testament. So purgatory wasn’t a totally new phenomenon after the Crucifixion. (For more reading see the EWTN piece.)

In the Old Testament we see evidence for the belief in what we call purgatory. 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 says: “He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”

This need for offering sacrifice and making atonement for the dead would support the idea that the souls were suffering something and somehow needed the prayers and intercession of the living to help them.

Though Judaism has not included the books of Maccabees in its canon of Scripture, some Jews have embraced a belief in a process of purification after death (see this article).

Did purgatory begin when hell began? This is an intriguing question, because the things of the spirit world are outside of time as we know it.

Nevertheless, it seems as if some of the angels fell first, among them the one we now call Satan. He, in turn, tried to turn men away from God. If we accept that sequence of events, then it seems reasonable to say hell existed first, since it was the punishment of the fallen angels.

Purgatory, or Sheol, or Gehenna — however we want to label the abode of the just who can’t enter heaven yet — would have started with the death of the first humans.

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