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Praising God In Hell (Pt.1)

Author: Fr Pat Collins CM

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Praising God In Hell (Pt.1)

The praise of Jesus in the throes of pain and anguish can bring us hope, says Fr. Pat Collins, in the first of a two part article.

I recently found myself reflecting in a prayerful way on the line in the Apostle’s Creed which says that Jesus descended into hell. Rather than referring to the place of the damned, the word hell refers to sheol in Hebrew, or hades in Greek, which Jews believed was  the place of the dead in a twilight zone, where all their activities had ceased. It struck me that sheol could be understood in two interrelated senses.

Firstly, one can enter into a living psychological and spiritual sheol, e.g., as a result of desolation of spirit, or the dark night of the soul when a person feels alienated from God.  Jesus experienced this.

Scripture says that Jesus acted as our scapegoat by taking our sins on himself. In Isaiah 53:12 we read: “He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many” and in 2 Cor 5:21 Paul wrote, “For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin.” One of sin’s effects is that it tends to eclipse the sense of God’s presence.

A Separation From God

The evangelists, Matthew and Mark, tell us that, when he was dying on the cross on Good Friday, Jesus experienced the kind of separation from God that is typical of unrepentant sinners.

In his anguish, he quoted the first line from Psalm 22 when he cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” They are the words of someone who has descended into a psycho-spiritual hell.

Commenting on them, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa has observed: “On the cross Jesus experienced the ultimate consequence of sin, which is the loss of God. He had become the godless one, the atheist. The word atheist can have either an active or a passive connotation. It can indicate someone who refuses God, but also someone who is refused by God. It is in the second sense that the word applied to Jesus on the cross.” 

Descending To Hell As Saviour

Secondly, there is a more radical and literal descent into sheol at the time of death.   When Jesus expired, his body was taken from the cross and placed in the tomb. Meanwhile his spirit joined the departed from previous generations in sheol.

However, as par 632 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.”  

Although it is a bit fanciful, I imagine what Jesus might have said to the souls in sheol who had died while faithfully awaiting the coming of the Messiah. He would have told them that he was the one they had been waiting for. Then he could have quoted the words he had proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth,at the beginning of his public ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me . . .He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives . . .  to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18-19).

'I Will Declare Your Name To My People'

He would have assured them that he was certain that his Father would vindicate him by raising him body and soul from the dead, and that those who believed in him, and his message, would be liberated with him.

I imagined that, having declared this, that he went on to quote some more of the words of Psalm 22, whose first line he had already quoted on the cross. “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honour him. Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned thesuffering of the afflicted one.”

Then I imagine that, in sheol, Jesus started to proclaim the praise of God in anticipation of the resurrection. As he did so, more and more of the souls in that dark place joined him in praise, not because they felt any consolation, but because they believed in who he was and the words of promise he had spoken.

Then I imagine that as he did this, Jesus was raised body and soul from the dead into the unimaginable glory of God’s presence. But that is not all. Those who were praising in union with him were also raised. In Matthew 27:52 we are told that, “tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead,” and Paul said in Ephesians 4:7,“When he ascended on high, he took many captives.”

  • Click here for part 2 of the article

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