Holy Saturday, the day on which the Lord’s body rested in the holy sepulchre and on which Mary prayed in silent mourning, while the apostles huddled together in fright and distress, is one on which Christians traditionally strive to maintain a spirit of recollectedness, in prayerful anticipation of the Resurrection, even if they can be a bit distracted by preparations for the Solemnity of Solemnities, as Easter truly is.
Our minds turn towards the dead body of the Saviour, lifeless, bloodless, but in peace, as can be seen on the Holy Shroud of Turin, which reveals to us the face that has suffered intensely, but is in the peace of God. Our hearts also go to Mother Mary, in the solitude of that dark day. Her divine Son had been put to a cruel death before her very eyes, and those He had chosen to be the pillars of His Church had all abandoned Him in cowardice and fear for their own lives. Mary knows her Son will rise, for she, she has not lost the faith as the apostles had. We keep her company on this day with filial love and gratitude for standing courageously on Calvary for those three long hours, consenting to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and offering herself in union with Him for the salvation of the world. This is why a massive tradition of patristic and magisterial texts present Mary to us as the co-redemptrix with her Son. Just as Eve took an active part in the sin of Adam, so Mary takes an active part in the redemption of that sin. She merited de congruo – that is to see by virtue of a certain fittingness due to her role of Mother of the Redeemer – for us all that Christ merited de condigno – that is to say by virtue of strict justice.
But there is a third aspect to this day. It concerns the soul of Our Blessed Lord which, as the apostles’ creed tells us, “descended into hell”. The traditional understanding of this dogma of faith is that the Lord’s soul went, after His death on Calvary, to the netherworld, where the souls of all the just were waiting for their redemption. Since the sin of Adam, the gates of Heaven were closed and no one could gain entrance until the coming of the Redeemer. All the souls who had died in God’s grace, in the hope of a future redeemer, had to wait, some of them for a very long time, that the Saviour sent by God would come and set them free. That is what happens on this day. When Christ enters the abode of the dead, He brings His glorious presence and the light of His divinity. He brings immense joy where there was sorrow. He fulfils all the hopes of those souls, among whom we can count St Joseph, St John the Baptist, all the patriarchs and prophet of the Old Covenant, and all souls who had, with the grace of God, come to know and serve Him in this life.
This descent of Christ into the dark abode of the dead is, in the teaching of the Church, a glorious descent. He does not go to the hell of the damned. He is not immersed in damnation. He does not despair. He does not know the pains of hell. Such thoughts have always been held to be blasphemous for a Catholic. Calvin had had the brazen audacity to uphold that Christ on the Cross had known the pain of damnation, separated from His Father. This is pure heresy. There can never be any separation between Father and Son. The state of extreme anguish of the Son on the Cross was one in which the Sacred Humanity is abandoned to the most cruel torments of both soul and body. But the human soul of Our Lord never loses its absolute and total confidence in the Father nor its intimate communion with Him.
Our Blessed Lord’s descent into hell was not an immersion in despair and sadness. It’s the exact opposite that is true. He descends into the pit, bringing His glory and light. It is very important to be aware of this, for it is not rare to run across writings that report in various ways the Calvinistic heresy.
But it is also important for another reason. It has become very much in vogue to refer to this time the Lord spent in the abode of the dead as a time in which, somehow or other He enters into contact with the dead of all ages, and announces to them the Gospel, allowing them, in death, to choose Him and be saved. A number of authors even tell us that thanks to this contact with the dead, Jesus is able to save all the dead. The consequence of this is that a soul that would have died without the faith could meet Him, in some mysterious way, be evangelised, and be saved. The theory is quite attractive. But it is false.
I hope to expound on this in the future with a more comprehensive text. For today, I will have be content with a translation of the part of my doctoral thesis which treats of this question. (L’option finale dans la mort: réalité ou mythe?, Perre Téqui, 2016 – English translation in preparation)
Part 3, ch. 4: Death, moment of justice
Even though most of the partisans of the hypothesis of the final option affirm the impossibility of conversion in the afterlife, their protestations are futile: a final option in death while the soul is no longer under the influence of the body is truly a conversion in the after-life.
It is certain that the Church has always rejected the possibility of such a conversion both for demons and for damned human souls. St Thomas summarised this doctrine with clarity in a lapidary formula: “according to Catholic Faith, it must be held firmly both that the will of the good angels is confirmed in good, and that the will of the demons is obstinate in evil” (Summa theologiae, Ia, 64, 2, corpus). He also made it clear that if the opinion of Origen had displeased all the Catholic doctors, it was not because they were envious of the salvation of the demons and damned humans, but because it would then be necessary to say, for the same reason, that the justice and glory of the angels and of blessed men would one day end, in which case the word of the Lord in Mt 25:46, would be meaningless: “These will go into everlasting suffering, and the just into everlasting life”.
At the heart of this question we find therefore the doctrine of origenism. “on the day of judgment, wrote St Augustine, there will be no pardon for the unjust and sinners: they will be the prey of eternal flames: anyone who believes otherwise is origenist” (De gestis Pelagii, ch. 3, n. 9). Leaving to the side the question of knowing in what measure what we call origensim is truly the doctrine of Origen himself – complex historical question outside of our present question – the fact is that origenist theses have been condemned by the Church (Councils of Constantinople II and Lateran I); in the same way the essential thesis of origenism was qualified as heretical by a preparatory schema for Vatican I. In a discussion alluding to the hypothesis put forward by Urs von Balthasar (inspired by Adrienne von Speyr) according to which Christ would go and “fish out” (zurückholen) the damned from hell, R. Kereszty recalls that the magisterial texts reflect Christian anthropology according to which a human being can only act as such and decide freely his destiny while he is in his body.
These few reminders were necessary also because of certain contemporary theories which, resuscitating in some way those of Origen, suppose without hiding it that there is a long enough “time” between death and judgment where the soul can “adjust itself” with regard to what will then be revealed to it. It is very interesting to note that Origen based himself on the same texts of the first epistle of St Peter that these modern authors use, and had given them the same interpretation (see following paragraph). For St Augustine, such a possibility is absurd, for then there would be no reason to feel sorry for those who die without the grace of the Gospel and we could not warn of eternal death those who take advantage of life and scorn the Gospel. As regards the hypothesis that Christ would have delivered all the souls in Hell, the doctor of Hippo considered it to be heretical.
The texts of St Peter
Two texts of the first epistle of St Peter inevitably come into discussion in every serious study of christology (descent into hell) and eschatology. In-depth studies have been made on three verses of this epistle. For our purposes, it will suffice to point out the essential elements of the debate.
Although most commentators consider that these texts refer to the same event, we are actually in the presence of two distinct texts, namely:
– 1 Pt 3.19-20: In it (that is, in the spirit) he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water (NAB)
– 1 Pt 4:6: For this cause was the gospel preached also to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men, in the flesh, but may live according to God, in the Spirit. (DR)
According to St Robert Bellarmine, we have here one of the “most obscure” texts and according to U. Holzmeiester, “not only the most difficult of this epistle…, but even one of the most obscure texts of the entire Bible”. More recently, J. Schlosser, relating the theories of Giesen and Horrell, affirms that “the last word on this question has certainly not been said”. But let’s try to briefly summarise the question.
For most commentators, the apostle is referring in these two texts to the descent of Christ into hell. W. Dalton enumerates the various theses:
For 1 Pt 3.19-20:
1) The spirits would be contemporaries of Noah who were waiting in the realm of the dead, and to whom Christ went to preach during the triduum of His death. Among those who hold this hypothesis, certain affirm that the preaching of the soul of Christ was destined to convert these souls and offer them salvation; others, that Christ brought the Gospel of salvation only to those who had converted before their death; others still, that the Gospel was destined only to the souls of the contemporaries of Noah who had died without conversion.
2) the spirits would be the same contemporaries of Noah, but considered as living on the earth at the moment of the flood; in the person of Noah, Christ preached to them in His divinity, that is to say centuries before the Incarnation.
3) The Spirits would be fallen angels, identified by Jewish tradition with the malice of men before the flood.
For 1 Pt 4:6:
1) The text refers to the preaching of salvation by Christ during the triduum of his death to all the dead, offering to all those who had lived before Christ the possibility of conversion and salvation.
2) It is a question of the Good News of salvation which Christ announced to all the just of the Old Covenant.
3) The announce would be the preaching of salvation by the apostles to all men in this world who are spiritually dead.
4) The dead would be Christians who have heard the Gospel on the earth before the epistle was written, that is to say before the second coming of Christ which was thought to be imminent.
St Thomas already alluded to the first passage (1 Pt 3:19-20), and cites St John Damascene who affirms that Christ evangelised those who were in the realm of the dead as He had brought the Good News to those who were on the earth, with the goal of, not converting the incredulous, but of confounding them. In other words, the preaching of Christ to the realm of the dead was destined not for the just, but for the damned, to manifest to them what they had missed in their life. St Thomas evokes also the point of view of St Augustine which he esteems better. The latter does not link the text of St Peter to the descent into hell, but to the action of His divinity which He exerted from the beginning of the world on all men. In this way, the meaning of the passage becomes the following: to those who were detained in prison, that is to say who were living in a mortal body, He came to preach His divinity by means of interior inspirations and exterior warnings given by the mouths of the just. In this way He preached to those who had been incredulous and presumed on the patience of God. This augustinian reading, taken for his own by St Thomas, is very instructive and pertinent: the hypothesis of the final option, just like other similar theories, opens wide the gate to the same presumption on the patience of God which was the cause of the damnation of all the men who neglected the inspirations of grace during their life.
Cajetan goes in the same direction when he explains the second passage (1 Pt 4:6). For him the opposition between the flesh and the spirit is essentially the one that exists between the evil and the just. The evil are condemned for having lived according to the flesh, that is to say by giving in to concupiscence. The just are rewarded for having lived according to the spirit, that is to say conforming themselves to the divine will. By preaching the Gospel in hell, Christ manifests that He is judge of both those who are already dead and those who are still alive. The wicked damned see thus that they were condemned for having lived according to the flesh, and the just see that they are saved for having lived according to God. But Cajetan especially points out the essential reason for this evangelisation of the dead: it was necessary so that the Gospel be effectively preached to all and prepare thus the final judgment of men. Concerning the living, they have the Gospel preached by the apostles and their successors.
J. H. Elliott, for his part, having recalled the various interpretations of this last verse, points out that some would like to see here an allusion to all the dead of all times and in particular those who never heard the announce of Christ during their life (which is essentially the position of E. Gallez). But he adds that certain partisans of this interpretation recognise its weak point: it would mean that the dead have a second chance to convert after their life here below. What’s more, Elliott affirms explicitly that this verse can in no way be used to defend the thesis of universal salvation, for the context makes it clear that the intention of he author is to show forth divine justice and the vengeance God will inflict on those who oppress others.
It will be useful here to mention that E. Gallez alludes to a passage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in which he thinks to find a basis for using the texts of St Peter in favour of his own thesis on the evangelisation of all souls after death. Here is what the Catechism says:
“The gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. 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”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 634)
According to Gallez, the catechism opts here for an interpretation of this verse as an announce made to all souls that wait in the netherworld: he makes no distinction between the damned and the saved. However, the preceding paragraph of the Catechism teaches explicitly:
“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.’ (Catechism of the Council of Trent) 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 633).
For me, this last passage is incompatible with the interpretation of Fr Gallez: if the descent of Christ into hell gives to all the dead of all times to see and hear Him in person, one can hardly imagine that this “preaching”, understood as an offer of salvation, would be rejected. Now, the Catechism says clearly that, on one hand there are the damned, and on the other hand, the damned are not set free by the coming of Christ. And so, it seems to me the there is only one conclusion that imposes itself: this preaching of Christ in hell, as the Catechism understands it, can only have a symbolic meaning for all men: it means quite simply that no man, neither before nor after Christ is outside of the economy of salvation which he came to bring to us, and consequently, no one is condemned to hell arbitrarily and without having the real possibility of salvation in this life.