Questions of Faith
It’s a safe scientific assumption to make that humans have been roaming the earth for at least 100,000 years – but if Christ only appeared 2,000 years ago, what happened to all those who died before he arrived?
It would be unfair for the pre-Christian deceased to go to Hell for eternity, especially those who preached the word of God like Abraham and Moses.
Clement of Alexandria (150-215) described the dilemma like this: “It is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and those alone who lived after the advent should have the advantage of the divine righteousness.”
The Church teaches that those who died in friendship with God before the Resurrection went to a place in Hell called the ‘Bosom of Abraham’. This idea is echoed in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31); both men descended to Hell, but Lazarus was comforted, while the wealthy man experienced suffering. There was a great chasm between them.
This spiritual waiting room has been referred to as the Limbo of the Patriarchs or Fathers, where they remained until Jesus descended into Hell to free them.
After his death, but before his Resurrection, Catholics believe that Jesus entered Hell and preached the Good News to those hadn’t the opportunity to know it in their earthly lives. In doing so, he opened the gates of Heaven to those who had died before him.
“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 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’. “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into Hell,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads.
“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.”
The Church teaches that those who died in friendship with God before the Resurrection went to a place in Hell called the ‘Bosom of Abraham”
This teaching reinforces the doctrinal idea that Christ is central to salvation, as it is through his life, death and Resurrection, that the possibility of eternal life is made real. Jesus’ descent into Hell brought the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment.
There’s plenty of artwork depicting this story, often referred to as the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, where Jesus triumphantly bands together the righteous and delivers them from the realm of the dead.
If this idea seems new to you, just remember that we recite a short version of it in the Apostles Creed: “[He] was crucified, died and was buried, he descended into Hell, on third day he rose again for the dead, he ascended into Heaven.”
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