Part 4 – God the Son – Week 5

Part 4 – God the Son – Week 5
He descended into Hell (2)

Having reflected on the first meaning of Christ’s descent into Hell for us – that we too must experience the silence and absence of God in our lives if we are to truly grow and deepen in our love for Him and trust in Him – Ratzinger then investigates what the word ‘hell’ actually means and what this dogma is trying to teach us. In a series of breathtaking – albeit dense – passages, he links death to the experience of complete and total abandonment and loneliness, to the kind of fear that rational argument cannot dispel but which only the loving presence of another person can help overcome. And this is what Christ’s descent into the dead, or into ‘hell,’ is actually telling us, he then concludes: that even in the abyss of final loneliness, we are actually no longer alone. Christ is there even where no other person’s love can accompany us. In Him, death itself, and thus our deepest fear of loneliness and abandonment, have been overcome.


“Let us try to investigate another aspect of this complex mystery, which cannot be elucidated from one side alone. Let us first take account of one of the findings of exegesis. We are told that in this article of the Creed, the word “hell” is only a wrong translation of sheol (in Greek, Hades), which denoted in Hebrew the state after death, which was very vaguely imagined as a kind of shadow existence, more nonbeing than being. Accordingly, the statement meant originally, say the scholars, only that Jesus entered sheol, that is, that he died.

This may be perfectly correct, but the question remains whether it makes the matter any simpler or less mysterious. In my view, it is only at this point that we come face to face with the problem of what death really is, what happens when someone dies, that is, enters into the fate of death. Confronted with this question, we all have to admit our embarrassment. No one really knows the answer because we all live on this side of death and are unfamiliar with the experience of death. But perhaps we can try to begin formulating an answer by starting again from Jesus’ cry on the Cross, which we found to contain the heart of what Jesus’ descent into hell, his sharing of man’s mortal fate, really means. In this last prayer of Jesus, as in the scene on the Mount of Olives, what appears as the innermost heart of his Passion is not any physical pain but radical loneliness, complete abandonment. But in the last analysis, what comes to light here is simply the abyss of loneliness of man in general, of man who is alone in his innermost being. This loneliness, which is usually thickly overlaid but is nevertheless the true situation of man, is at the same time in fundamental contradiction with the nature of man, who cannot exist alone; he needs company. […]

A concrete example may help to make this clearer. When a child has to walk through the woods in the dark, he feels frightened, however convincingly he has been shown that there is no reason at all to be frightened. As soon as he is alone in the darkness, and thus has the experience of utter loneliness, fear arises, the fear peculiar to man, which is not fear of anything in particular but simply fear in itself. Fear of a particular thing is basically harmless; it can be removed by taking away the thing concerned. For example, if someone is afraid of a vicious dog, the matter can be swiftly settled by putting the dog on a chain. Here we come up against something much deeper, namely, the fact that where man falls into extreme loneliness he is not afraid of anything definite that could be explained away; on the contrary, he experiences the fear of loneliness, the uneasiness and vulnerability of his own nature, something that cannot be overcome by rational means. […]

How then, we must ask, can such fear be overcome if proof of its groundlessness has no effect? Well, the child will lose his fear the moment there is a hand there to take him and lead him and a voice to talk to him; at the moment therefore at which he experiences the fellowship of a loving human being. […]

[But] if there were such a thing as a loneliness that could no longer be penetrated and transformed by the word of another; if a state of abandonment were to arise that was so deep that no “You” could reach into it any more, then we should have real, total loneliness and dreadfulness, what theology calls “hell”. We can now define exactly what this word means: it denotes loneliness that the word love can no longer penetrate and that therefore indicates the exposed nature of existence in itself. […] In truth—one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone—the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is—hell.

This brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it. Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. From this angle, I think, one can understand the images—which at first sight look so mythological—of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates. The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened and the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt 27:52). The door of death stands open since life—love—has dwelt in death.


  1. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 [1968], 297-301.




  1. Have I experienced moments of extreme loneliness, rejection, and abandonment? Have I suffered through the loss of a loved one: a parent, a spouse, a child? Only in these moments can we begin to understand the deepest fear that secretly torments us. Today Christ wants to soothe and heal my pain, to remind me that He truly is with me – even in those moments that have, and perhaps even continue to be, my ‘hell’. Open your heart to Jesus, allow Him to speak to you and remind you that even in the darkest night He is with you.



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