In our explanation of the Rosary we are likely to be asked to explain some of the meanings of the articles of the Creed. A very common question is, “What do Catholics mean when they say of Jesus, that “He descended into hell” before He ascended into Heaven?
The definition of death for us human beings is the separation of the soul from the body. But until Jesus accomplish the sacrifice on the cross to save our souls from sin and eternal death, Heaven was closed to the human race. Where did souls of the dead go who lived and died before Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven? And where did the soul of Jesus go while his body was in the tomb? 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. Such was the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they awaited the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot or experience there was identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was comforted and received into “Abraham’s bosom” (Cf. Ps 89:49; 1 Sam 28:19; Ezek 32:17-32; Lk 16:22-26.) “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” 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.
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).
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. “The gospel was preached even to the dead. (1Pet 4:6).