Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

The descent event

- The Dead Christ by Philippe de Champagne

Usually on Holy Saturday, I try to imagine Jesus as busy harrowing hell ...

The term Harrowing of Hell refers not merely to the idea that Christ descended into Hell, as in the Creed, but to the rich tradition that developed later, asserting that he triumphed over inferos, releasing Hell's captives, particularly Adam and Eve, and the righteous men and women of Old Testament times.

- A medieval Harrowing of Hell, with Hellmouth, as engraved by Michael Burghers (1647/8–1727)

Hand Urs von Balthasar was big on the idea of Jesus' descent into hell. Here's a bit from a past article at First Things which touches on this ....


Was Balthasar a Heretic?
Oct 15, 2008
R.R. Reno

[...] The current issue of the theological journal Pro Ecclesia features a helpful essay by Griffiths, a Duke professor and First Things contributor: “Is There a Doctrine of the Descent into Hell?" (Summer 2008). With his usual care, Griffiths assesses the main claim about the orthodoxy of Balthasar’s theology put forward by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick in Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell (Eerdmans, 2007).

Griffiths brackets the thorny question of how to interpret Balthasar, whose vivid biblical imagery and brilliant conceptual formulations do not lend themselves to easy summary. His focus is formal. He wishes only to query whether or not there is a magisterial teaching on Christ’s descent that can be used to assess the orthodoxy of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Griffiths focuses on two elements of Pitstick’s distillation of the tradition. One has to do with the purpose of Christ’s descent, while the other has to do with the mode. By Pitstick’s reckoning, the Church teaches that Christ's descent was to “the limbo of the Fathers,” which is to say, to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, in order to liberate them. Moreover, this descent was “glorious” and involved no suffering on Christ’s part.

There can be no doubt that Balthasar’s own theology of Holy Saturday teaches otherwise. Inspired by the mystical visions of Adrienne von Speyr, Balthasar developed an extraordinarily vivid account of Christ’s descent into hell. Instead of entering hell in triumphant splendor so as to rescue the Israelites of old whose faith was awaiting completion, Balthasar envisions the crucified Son of God as a depth charge of divine life tossed into the abyss of dissolution. The more deeply the Son sinks into death, the more profoundly does the eventual, inevitable, and triumphant explosion of divine life reverberate.

So what are we to make of the obvious differences? Balthasar has Christ descending to what really amounts to the metaphysical depths of nothingness, while, according to Pitstick, the tradition teaches that Christ descends to “the limbo of the Fathers.” Balthasar goes to great lengths to dramatize the agony of separation as the dead Son descends ever farther from the everlasting life of the Father, and again the tradition seems to go in a different direction, emphasizing the invulnerable, triumphant divinity shared between Father and Son.

But hold on. Griffiths searches magisterial documents, and he finds that the term “the limbo of the Fathers” occurs only in a text by Pius VI from 1784. As he notes, “The term is not found in the 1992 Catechism, nor in the Catechism of the Council of Trent.” So, it turns out that “the limbo of the Fathers” may have a fine theological pedigree, but it has no obvious or stable place in the Catholic hierarchy of truth. In short, the idea that Christ descends to “the limbo of the Fathers” is part of a venerable Catholic theological tradition that invites reflection, discussion, and debate rather than compels assent.

The same holds for Pitstick’s claim that the Church’s magisterium teaches that Christ’s descent was glorious and without suffering. As Griffiths notes, Christ’s work in overcoming the power of the devil is surely glorious, and calling it so “is deeply rooted in that tradition.” “But,” he continues, “the idea that calling the descent glorious excludes suffering from it, I take to be on much less solid ground.” Aside from a passage from the Catechism of the Council of Trent, he observes that “there is nothing else in the tradition of which I am aware (or of which Pitstick is aware: if she had been she would have told us) which suggests the possibility that her preferred construal of the glory of the descent should be elevated to doctrinal status: nothing creedal, nothing conciliar, and nothing magisterial.”

Where does this put us? ........


But I guess not everyone believed Jesus descended into hell, whether in glory or in suffering - according to Wikipedia ...

Thomas Aquinas taught that Christ did not descend into the "Hell of the lost" in his essence, but only by the effect of his death, through which "he put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory he gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in Hell solely on account of original sin, he shed the light of glory everlasting."

Speaking for myself, I prefer to believe there is no hell, no limbo, no purgatory, and so Jesus would have no reason to be out and about, but would instead be in his tomb. In a way this is harder to accept - a dead and gone Jesus - and perhaps that's why I've usually thought of him as active, but somehow this Holy Saturday feels different.


Blogger colkoch said...

One of my more bizarre mystical journeys was to be taken to hell. Adrienne Von Speyr is very very very close to what I saw and how it was explained to me.

Jesus did enter the scene like a nuclear blast because hell is in many senses a part of the quantum void. People who seem to be in hell are those whose despair level is such that they turn in on themselves and can't literally find the light. It's a place not precisely of punishment, but of literal lost souls. This is not to say that many of those souls aren't lost because of their unresolved actions.

There were many beings of light trying to get their attention, but they weren't being successful. It was vastly different with Jesus. Big big light, lots of success.

Love this blog by the way and the line "I think there for I blog." is the reason I blog too. That and original thinking is in short supply right now in Catholicism

5:50 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the comment. and the kind words I'll have to read more about Adrienne Von Speyr. I guess many people believe hell exists because of the free will factor - the idea that if people choose to turn away from the light, for whatever reason, they must be allowed to. But I hope a really loving parent would not allow that. Maybe that's just what I want to believe, in case I end up there :)

6:01 PM  

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