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Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo

Making sense of hell

Voices April 10, 2019

The descent of Jesus into hell where the souls of the prophets and other pre-Christians await him is depicted in a 14th-century fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto. This is not the hell we mean as a place of eternal punishment, writes Msgr. Lopez-Gallo. (Wikimedia)

The English word “hell” is derived from the Teutonic name for the place that, according to German mythology, is the abode of the dead. In Hebrew it was known as Sheol or Gehenna.

Today the word “hell” is used to signify the place of the damned, words used by Jesus himself when speaking about scandalizing the young. He clearly stated that for someone responsible for such evil, it would be better “if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea” (Lk 17:2). Christ also said that it would be better if Judas had never been born (Mt 26:24).

Christ did not expressly speak of hell to convey information about a place beyond present experience but in the context of the decision to which the human person is called by the proclamation of the Gospel.

A theological idea of hell is derived and influenced by other concepts: Is hell an eternal place of torture for the unsaved? And who really goes to hell?

Pope Benedict XVI clearly believes hell is a possibility for us all. In Spe Salvi he writes: “There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own German history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word hell” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, no. 45).

But St. John Paul II’s words are clearer about not attributing eternal damnation to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he only desires the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to God’s love.

Damnation consists precisely of definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person, and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God’s judgment “only ratifies this state” (from John Paul II’s General Audience, July 28, 1999).

It is vital, therefore, to take in the meaning of Christ’s words “to watch and pray” (Mt 26:41), to “seek first His kingdom” (Mt 6:33), and to “enter from the narrow gate” (Mt 7:13).

To be in a state of grace means that Christ lives with us. If we extinguish the life of Christ in us through serious sin, if we banish him from our soul, we have separated ourselves and alienated ourselves from God. We have chosen eternal nothingness. We have chosen hell.

We also need to be concerned about those who can be led astray or who already appear to be turning away from God and the kingdom promised by Christ. It is necessary to pray for those in danger of eternal loss as well as to reach out to them.

To be clear, this “hell” is not the one Jesus descended to in the Apostle’s Creed after his crucifixion when he gave up his spirit.

According to Matthew 27:13, after Jesus’ resurrection, the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Among these saints were the prophets, the slaughtered infants also called the Holy Innocents, St. Joseph, and many others who died in God’s grace.

This belief is based on biblical passages, though various opinions have been held as to their exact meaning.

Some have thought that Jesus’ descent into hell refers to the victory over the powers of evil, while others have connected it with the dereliction on the Cross.

Most Christian theologians, however, believe it refers to the visit of the Lord after his death to the realm of existence which is neither heaven nor hell, but a place or state where the souls of pre-Christian people waited for the message of the Gospel, and where the penitent thief passed after his death on the cross (Lk 23:43).

The earliest known references to Christ’s descent to hell and what we recite on Sundays at Mass are from the 4th century in the Arian formularies. Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds are ancient texts by which the Church has proclaimed its faith for more than 1,500 years.

All who follow Christ profess the one faith in union with the Church in time and in eternity, but only the Apostles’ Creed mentions that Jesus descended into the dead, according to the Council of Constantinople.

When I was a little boy, my mom taught me this about my death: “I must die, but I do not know when. I will die, but I do not know how or where. The only certainty is that if I die in God’s grace I will be in Heaven.” Repeat this and your life will change.