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St. Thomas Aquinas
Catechetical Instructions

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  • THE FIFTH ARTICLE: "He Descended into Hell."
    • REASONS FOR CHRIST'S DESCENT
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REASONS FOR CHRIST'S DESCENT

 

There are four reasons why Christ together with His soul descended into

hell. First, He wished to take upon Himself the entire punishment for our

sin, and thus atone for its entire guilt. The punishment for the sin of man

was not alone death of the body, but there was also a punishment of the

soul, since the soul had its share in sin; and it was punished by being

deprived of the beatific vision; and as yet no atonement had been offered

whereby this punishment would be taken away. Therefore, before the coming

of Christ all men, even the holy fathers after their death, descended into

hell. Accordingly in order to take upon Himself most perfectly the

punishment due to sinners, Christ not only suffered death, but also His

soul descended into hell.2 He, however, descended for a different cause

than did the fathers; for they did so out of necessity and were of

necessity taken there and detained, but Christ descended there of His own

power and free will: "I am counted among them that go down to the pit; I am

become as a man without help, free among the dead."3 The others were there

as captives, but Christ was freely there.

 

The second reason is that He might perfectly deliver all His friends.

Christ had His friends both in the world and in hell. The former were His

friends in that they possessed charity; and the latter were they who

departed this life with charity and faith in the future Redeemer, such as

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and other just and good men.

Therefore, since Christ had dwelt among His friends in this world and had

delivered them by His death, so He wished to visit His friends who were

detained in hell and deliver them also: "I will penetrate to all the lower

parts of the earth, and will behold all that hope in the Lord."4

 

The third reason is that He would completely triumph over the devil. Now, a

person is perfectly vanquished when he is not only overcome in conflict,

but also when the assault is carried into his very home, and the seat of

his kingdom is taken away from him. Thus Christ triumphed over the devil,5

and on the Cross He completely vanquished him: "Now is the judgment of this

world; now shall the prince of this world (that is, the devil) be cast

out."6 To make this triumph complete, Christ wished to deprive the devil of

the seat of his kingdom and to imprison him in his own house - which is

hell. Christ, therefore, descended there, and despoiled the devil of

everything and bound him, taking away his prey:7 "And despoiling the

principalities and powers, He hath exposed them confidently in open show,

triumphing over them in Himself."8 Likewise, Christ who had received the

power and possession of heaven and earth, desired too the possession of

hell, as says the Apostle: "That in the name of Jesus every knee should

bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth."9 "In My

name they shall cast out devils."10

 

The fourth and final reason is that Christ might free the just who were in

hell [or Limbo]. For as Christ wished to suffer death to deliver the living

from death, so also He would descend into hell to deliver those who were

there: "Thou also by the blood of Thy testament, hast sent forth Thy

prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water."11 And again: "O death, I

will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite."12 Although Christ wholly

overcame death, yet not so completely did He destroy hell, but, as it were,

He bit it. He did not free all from hell, but those only who were without

mortal sin. He likewise liberated those without original sin, from which

they, as individuals, were freed by circumcision; or before [the

institution of] circumcision, they who had been saved through their

parents' faith (which refers to those who died before having the use of

reason); or by the sacrifices, and by their faith in the future coming of

Christ (which refers to adults)."13 The reason they were there in hell

[i.e., Limbo] is original sin which they had contracted from Adam, and from

which as members of the human race they could not be delivered except by

Christ. Therefore, Christ left there those who had descended there with

mortal sin, and the non-circumcised children. Thus, it is seen that Christ

descended into hell, and for what reasons. Now we may gather four

considerations from this for our own instruction.

 




2. See last footnote. This place is also called Limbo.

 



3. Ps. lxxxvii. 5. "They descended as captives; He as free and victorious

amongst the dead, to overcome those devils by whom, in consequence of their

guilt, they were held in captivity" ("Roman Catechism," "loc. cit.," 5).

 



4. Ecclus., xxiv. 45.

 



5. This refers to the temptation of Our Lord in the desert.

 



6. John, xii. 31.

 



7. St. Thomas says that the soul of Christ descended to the hell of the

just or to Limbo "per suam essentiam," but to the hell of the damned only

"per suum effectum" ("Summa Theol.," III, Q. lii, Art. 2).

 



8. Col., ii. 15.

 



9. Phil., ii. Io

 



10. Mark, xvi. 17.

 



11. Zach.. ix. 11.

 



12. Osee, xiii. 14.

 



13. Italics added.

 






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