There’s a curious line in our creed which says that, immediately following his death, Jesus “descended into hell”. What possibly can that mean?


Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Some years ago, some family friends of mine lost a daughter to suicide. She was in her early twenties and away from home when she made her first attempt to kill herself. The family rushed to her, flew her home, surrounded her with loving solicitude, and took her to doctors of ever kind. In the end, they failed. She killed herself, despite their efforts. All the loving effort and professional resources they could muster could not break through and bring her out of the private hell into which she had descended.

What the cross of Christ reveals is that when we are so paralysed by fear and overcome by darkness that we can no longer help ourselves, when we have reached the stage where we can no longer open the door to let light and life in, God can still come through our locked doors, stand inside our fear and paralysis, and breathe out peace.

The love that is revealed in Jesus’ suffering and death, a love that is so other-centred that it can fully forgive and embrace its executioners, can precisely pass through locked doors, melt frozen hearts, penetrate the walls of fear, and descend into our private hells and, there, breathe out peace.

In the case of the young woman who committed suicide, she had reached a point where she was frozen inside of a private hell, behind doors that her family’s love and professional doctors could no longer open. I have no doubt though that when she awoke on the other side, she found Christ standing inside her fear and darkness, breathing out peace.

The doctrine of the “descent into hell” is singularly the most consoling of all doctrines, in any religion. As an ancient homily on Holy Saturday so wonderfully puts it, the love that Christ reveals in the cross is so strong that it can descend into any hell we can create, thaw out our frozen souls, and lead us into the light and peace of paradise, despite our fears and weaknesses.

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