US Catholic Faith in Real Life

To hell and back on Holy Saturday

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Christ's Holy Saturday descent into hell is all about love, not fire and brimstones.

Guest blog post by Kevin Patrick Considine

There is one small phrase that appears in the Apostles Creed that does not usually appear in the Nicene Creed that we recite on Sundays. This is Christ’s descent to the dead, also known as his descent into hell, that is connected to Holy Saturday. Especially for us today, who are rightly skeptical of a God who creates a place of eternal punishment, this phrase is a problem. So, it seems like a good phrase to omit. Because, really, how is this important for our faith? And what does it say about our God?

I think it has a lot of importance for both our faith and our understanding of God. This is because Christ’s decent into hell is nothing less than a radical example of God’s love for humankind.

After all, many theologians today do not ascribe the idea of “hell” to the Creator but rather to the consequences of human sinfulness. It is a logical extension of a human free will that chooses sin, the wounds of which have consequences that resonate far beyond this life. Moreover, although the Catholic faith states that there is a hell, it does not make any statements about whether anyone is actually there. The church only professes sure knowledge of saints and salvation.

What this means is that God’s love for humankind is so radical and so passionate that God will go to any lengths and to any location to find and call home God’s sons and daughters. The ultimate example of this love is Christ’s decent into hell. Like a strong mother, a caring father, or a fierce friend, Christ willfully enters into the abyss of non-being and all that is not God. That is, into the realm of what has chosen to be “anti-God” and “anti-Christ.” But God even goes here, drinks in its emptiness, isolation, and nothingness to the fullest, and by doing so breaks its power and assures us that no one need go to such a place ever again. God’s love is that powerful.

To be clear, hell is not a burning fire. That image is associated more with the purification of purgatory. It is a black hole, so to speak. Whereas God is the Creator, Edward Schillebeeckx points out that hell is a place of uncreation—an abyss. But it can no longer have the final word. This is because God’s love and offer of the Divine Self is so strong that it has already paved the way to life and salvation. This is what Holy Saturday insists that Christ did. So, one needs but only choose to follow him to the Father.

The idea of Christ’s decent into hell is not about punishment and it is not about a vindictive God. It is better understood as an illustration of the radicality of God’s love for us. God’s presence is everywhere and God will go anywhere to bring us home.

Guest blogger Kevin Patrick Considine is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at Loyola University Chicago.

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Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.