“Ask a Priest: Did Jesus descend into hell as stated in the Apostles’ Creed?”

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Q: In the Apostles’ Creed it states that Jesus descended to hell, but in the Baltimore Catechism it states the souls were in Limbo. Can you clarify? My CCD class is very smart and interested and wants to know, “Which is it?” -D.W.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is important to note that limbo is a theory, not a doctrine of the Church. Theologians had theorized about limbo as a place of bliss where, for instance, the souls of unbaptized babies go after death. Since the babies inherited original sin — says the theory — they could not merit the beatific vision (that is, see God in heaven). Yet because they are without personal sin they are not subject to punishment.

The theory of limbo was a way to try to balance the belief in God’s mercy (would he condemn unbaptized babies?) and Jesus’ affirmation that baptism is necessary salvation (see John 3:5). A 2007 document from the International Theological Commission — a document published with Pope Benedict XVI’s approval — noted that the Church at times mentioned limbo in its ordinary teaching up until the Second Vatican Council.

That explains why “limbo” appears in the Baltimore Catechism. The work originated at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 when U.S. bishops decided to publish a national catechism. Its question-and-answer format was familiar to generations of American Catholics, well into the 1960s.

No. 86 of the Baltimore Catechism says: “Q. Did Christ’s soul descend into the hell of the damned? A. The hell into which Christ’s soul descended was not the hell of the damned, but a place or state of rest called Limbo, where the souls of the just were waiting for Him.” That mention of limbo echoed a theory widely accepted in its day, though it wasn’t the last word on the subject.

Now, the Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead.” The Baltimore Catechism notes correctly that the hell into which Jesus’ soul descended was not the hell of the damned. Rather, “hell” here means what Scripture calls the abode of the dead. (In Hebrew the word was Sheol, in Greek Hades.) Dwelling there were the souls of those who were deprived of the vision of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 633, notes: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.”

You could tell your CCD class that the Apostles’ Creed and the Baltimore Catechism say basically the same thing. What the creed calls “hell” (properly understood!), the BC calls “limbo,” a shakier term.

True, limbo remains a possible theological opinion. But it is worth noting that the theory of limbo is not even mentioned in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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  1. I am living in Brazil and there are subtle differences here in the Portuguese version of Apostle’s Creed and the Our Father. Instead of “descended into hell”, here it translates as Christ “descended to the mansion of the dead” , which always seemed more accurate to me. I wonder if ‘descended into hell” was just a poor translation from the Latin into early English versions .

    1. Thanks for your note. “Hell” in this case is meant in the sense of the underworld, the realm of the dead, Sheol.
      It sounds a bit harsh to modern ears, no doubt.
      The Apostles’ Creed contains this line in Latin: descendit ad inferos. In older English the word inferos was rendered as “hell,” but it was understood not to mean the place of the damned.
      It meant the temporary state where the righteous who died in pre-Christian times were kept, waiting for heaven to be opened to them.
      “Hell” probably remained in the English translation, partly out of custom.

      I hope this helps.

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