I’ve written on this subject before, but I want to cover another time. We say in the Creed that Christ “descended into hell”. What do we mean by this? Hans Urs von Balthasar — in a compilation of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed called Credo — has some helpful comments.
He explains that while Christ’s descent into death on Saturday is by no means the victory of Easter — for he was truly dead! — Christ died in a unique way in which no one else had, which opens up new possibilities and realities:
[T]his dead man is different from all the rest. He has died purely from love, from divine human love; indeed, his death was the supreme act of that love, and love is the most living thing that there is (p 53-54).
While it is true that Christ was truly dead like any other man, he died in a way no other man had: out of perfect love, which is living and redemptive. What this means that in descending into death, perfect love is brought into the depths of death, and death is thereby transformed into life. Balthasar says this about Christ’s descent into death:
Thus his really being dead — and that means the loss of any and every sort of contact with God and his fellow human beings — is also an act of his most living love… From Holy Saturday onward, death becomes purification. On that day, the dead Lord opened up a way out of eternal forlornness and into heaven…Descending into [death], Christ has thrown open the entranceway to the Father (54)
Put simply, Balthasar concludes that by going down into death by a perfect divine love, Christ has transformed death into life by love. The realm of the dead is thereby purified, and opened up to Father.
This is good gospel news for all who have died before, for it opens up heaven to all those Old Covenant saints. Balthasar explains, “under the Old Covenant…for everyone, there was only Sheol, the place of being dead” (54). The saints of old, as Hebrews says, died without receiving “the things promised” (Heb 11:39). They went into death, but could not enter into paradise without purification. The death of Christ brings life into death, and purifies the realm of the dead, thereby opening heaven to those who went before us.
Christ descends into the realm of death and opens it up by love. This is the good news of Holy Saturday.