Today’s Catechism sections discuss Jesus’ decent into Hell. Supporting material comes from St. Augustine’s Letter to Evodius.

Article 5

"HE DESCENDED INTO HELL. ON THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN"

631 Jesus "descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens."475 The Apostles' Creed confesses in the same article Christ's descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth:

Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.476

Paragraph 1. CHRIST DESCENDED INTO HELL

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was "raised from the dead" presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.477 This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.478

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell" - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.479 Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into "Abraham's bosom":480 "It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell."481 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.482

634 "The gospel was preached even to the dead."483 The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live."484 Jesus, "the Author of life", by dying destroyed "him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage."485 Henceforth the risen Christ holds "the keys of Death and Hades", so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth."486

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him - He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . "I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead."487

IN BRIEF

636 By the expression "He descended into hell", the Apostles' Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil "who has the power of death" (⇒ Heb 2:14).

637 In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him.

St. Augustine in his Letter to “Evodius”, writes on the descent of Jesus into Hell.

3. It is established beyond question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, descended into hell; for it is impossible to gainsay either that utterance of prophecy, You will not leave my soul in hell, — an utterance which Peter himself expounds in the Acts of the Apostles, lest any one should venture to put upon it another interpretation—or the words of the same apostle, in which he affirms that the Lord loosed the pains of hell, in which it was not possible for Him to be holden. Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell? As to the difficulty which is found in reconciling the statement that the pains of hell were loosed by Him, with the fact that He had never begun to be in these pains as in bonds, and did not so loose them as if He had broken off chains by which He had been bound, this is easily removed when we understand that they were loosed in the same way as the snares of huntsmen may be loosed to prevent their holding, not because they have taken hold. It may also be understood as teaching us to believe Him to have loosed those pains which could not possibly hold Him, but which were holding those to whom He had resolved to grant deliverance.

4. But who these were it is presumptuous for us to define. For if we say that all who were found there were then delivered without exception, who will not rejoice if we can prove this? Especially will men rejoice for the sake of some who are intimately known to us by their literary labors, whose eloquence and talent we admire—not only the poets and orators who in many parts of their writings have held up to contempt and ridicule these same false gods of the nations, and have even occasionally confessed the one true God, although along with the rest they observed superstitious rites, but also those who have uttered the same, not in poetry or rhetoric, but as philosophers: and for the sake of many more of whom we have no literary remains, but in regard to whom we have learned from the writings of these others that their lives were to a certain extent praiseworthy, so that (with the exception of their service of God, in which they erred, worshipping the vanities which had been set up as objects of public worship, and serving the creature rather than the Creator) they may be justly held up as models in all the other virtues of frugality, self-denial, chastity, sobriety, braving of death in their country's defense, and faith kept inviolate not only to fellow citizens, but also to enemies. All these things, indeed, when they are practiced with a view not to the great end of right and true piety, but to the empty pride of human praise and glory, become in a sense worthless and unprofitable; nevertheless, as indications of a certain disposition of mind, they please us so much that we would desire those in whom they exist, either by special preference or along with the others, to be freed from the pains of hell, were not the verdict of human feeling different from that of the justice of the Creator.

5. These things being so, if the Savior delivered all from that place, and, to quote the terms of the question in your letter, emptied hell, so that now from that time forward the last judgment was to be expected, the following things occasion not unreasonable perplexity on this subject, and are wont to present themselves to me in the meantime when I think on it. First, by what authoritative statements can this opinion be confirmed? For the words of Scripture, that the pains of hell were loosed by the death of Christ, do not establish this, seeing that this statement may be understood as referring to Himself, and meaning that he so far loosed (that is, made ineffectual) the pains of hell that He Himself was not held by them, especially since it is added that it was impossible for Him to be holden of them. Or if any one [objecting to this interpretation] ask the reason why He chose to descend into hell, where those pains were which could not possibly hold Him who was, as Scripture says, free among the dead, in whom the prince and captain of death found nothing which deserved punishment, the words that the pains of hell were loosed may be understood as referring not to the case of all, but only of some whom He judged worthy of that deliverance; so that neither is He supposed to have descended there in vain, without the purpose of bringing benefit to any of those who were there held in prison, nor is it a necessary inference that what divine mercy and justice granted to some must be supposed to have been granted to all.

Footnotes

475 ⇒ Eph 4:9-10.
476 Roman Missal, Easter Vigil 18, Exsultet.
477 ⇒ Acts 3:15; ⇒ Rom 8:11; ⇒ I Cor 15:20; cf. ⇒ Heb 13:20.
478 Cf. ⇒ I Pt 3:18-19.
479 Cf. ⇒ Phil 2:10; ⇒ Acts 2:24; ⇒ Rev 1:18; ⇒ Eph 4:9; ⇒ Pss 6:6; ⇒ 88:11-13.
480 Cf. ⇒ Ps 89:49; ⇒ I Sam 28:19; ⇒ Ezek 32:17-32; ⇒ Lk 16:22-26.
481 Roman Catechism 1, 6, 3.
482 Cf. Council of Rome (745): DS 587; Benedict XII, Cum dudum (1341): DS 1011; Clement VI, Super quibusdam (1351): DS 1077; Council of Toledo IV (625): DS 485; ⇒ Mt 27:52-53.
483 ⇒ I Pt 4:6.
484 ⇒ Jn 5:25; cf. ⇒ Mt 12:40; ⇒ Rom 10:7; ⇒ Eph 4:9.
485 ⇒ Heb 2:14-15; cf. ⇒ Acts 3:15.
486 ⇒ Rev 1:18; ⇒ Phil 2:10.
487 Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: PG 43, 440A, 452C; LH, Holy Saturday, OR.