Why Did Christ Descend Into Hell?

St. Thomas Aquinas explains that Christ’s descent to hell fulfilled many purposes.

Fra Angelico, “Christ in Limbo,” ca. 1442
Fra Angelico, “Christ in Limbo,” ca. 1442 (photo: Public Domain)

While most Catholics well-versed in their faith could probably provide a robust explanation as to the question of why Jesus suffered and died on the cross, the reasons for why he subsequently descended to hell are more elusive and less known even among the faithful.

Demonstrating the reality of his death on the cross is certainly one reason, but there are many others. In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas offers a total of four explanations.

For Aquinas, the descent to hell is the metaphysical complement to the burial of Christ’s body. In dying, Christ assumed all the consequences of a normal human death — apart from any punishments due to sin that another soul might incur — and that meant that his body was laid in a tomb while his soul went to hell.

For Aquinas, it’s not just the fact of Christ’s descent to hell, but his duration there that is a testament to the truth of his death on the cross:

As Christ, in order to take our penalties upon Himself, willed His body to be laid in the tomb, so likewise He willed His soul to descend into hell. But the body lay in the tomb for a day and two nights, so as to demonstrate the truth of His death. Consequently, it is to be believed that His soul was in hell, in order that it might be brought back out of hell simultaneously with His body from the tomb” (Summa Theologiae, Part Three, Question 52, Article 4, Answer). 

But Christ’s descent to hell and subsequent sojourn there fulfills his redemptive mission in several other significant ways, according to Aquinas.

In Question 52, the one question in the Summa devoted to the topic, Aquinas pinpoints three other reasons. First,

He came to bear our penalty in order to free us from penalty, according to Isaiah 53:4: ‘Surely He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows.’ But through sin man had incurred not only the death of the body, but also descent into hell. Consequently since it was fitting for Christ to die in order to deliver us from death, so it was fitting for Him to descend into hell in order to deliver us also from going down into hell (Article 1’s Answer).

Aquinas is staking out an intriguing claim here — one that is not normally associated with him: that Christ suffered ‘infirmities and sorrows’ in his descent to hell. This may be surprising as most Catholics may reasonably assume that Christ’s sufferings ended with his death on the cross. But, as Aquinas reminds us, there are two ways of speaking about Christ’s death: death in “becoming,” or dying, and death “in fact” (Question 50, Article 6, Answer). The idea that Christ bore our infirmities by going to hell is simply another way of saying that in his descent to hell he was carrying out the consequences of his moment of death on the cross. (Importantly, Aquinas clarifies that any suffering endured by Christ in hell was not meritorious.)  

But, the descent to hell also was a period of transition — a bridge from Good Friday to Easter Sunday in which Christ, while still bearing the consequences of a human death, began to manifest his victory over it, in a dramatic foreshadowing of his resurrection. 

He did this in two ways according to Aquinas, each constituting an additional reason for Christ’s mission in hell. 

First, Christ delivered the “captives detained in hell,” that is, the holy fathers of the Old Testament, who according to tradition were awaiting their Messiah in limbo, the “highest” level of hell (see Question 52, Article 1’s Answer). According to Aquinas, the fathers had remained detained in hell due to original sin by which all members of the human race were excluded from God’s glory (Question 52, Article 6’s Answer). For the future saints who would die, the sacrament of baptism would erase the guilt of original sin, but the holy fathers in limbo did not have recourse to this sacrament, so Christ descended to hell to free them. As Aquinas puts it, “Hence, as the power of the Passion is applied to the living through the sacraments which make us like unto Christ's Passion, so likewise it is applied to the dead through his descent into hell” (Question 52, Article 1, Reply to Objection 2). 

Second, Aquinas viewed Christ’s stay in hell as an extension of his proclamation of his power: 

As He showed forth His power on earth by living and dying, so also He might manifest it in hell, by visiting it and enlightening it. Accordingly it is written (Psalm 23:7): ‘Lift up your gates, O ye princes,’ which the gloss thus interprets: ‘that is — Ye princes of hell, take away your power, whereby hitherto you held men fast in hell’; and so ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,’ not only ‘of them that are in heaven,’ but likewise ‘of them that are in hell,’ as is said in Philippians 2:10 (Question 52, Article 6’s Answer).

In other words, according to Aquinas a yet further reason for Christ’s descent to hell was to announce his victory on the cross. 

As Christ moved about the various abodes of hell, this news takes different concrete forms. For those in purgatory, Christ offered consolation and encouragement; however, for those in the hell of the lost, he “put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness” (Question 52, Article 2’s Answer). 

Christ’s descent to hell then, in Aquinas’ view, fulfilled many purposes. Yes, it did serve to verify the reality of his death but it also did more than that. Even in his death, Christ was very active in hell — bearing our infirmities, rescuing the holy fathers, and announcing the news of his victory over death. Rather than being an afterthought, Christ’s descent to hell deserves to be in the forefront of Catholics’ thinking about the events of Good Friday and Easter — it is too interesting and too important to be otherwise. 

The above is based on the author’s thesis, “‘He Hath Borne Our Infirmities and Carried Our Sorrows’: Thomas Aquinas on Christ’s Suffering in His Descent to Hell,” for his Master’s of Arts in Theology at Providence College.