The Apostles Creed, that staple of my early prayer life, states that Jesus “descended into hell.” Naturally (!) I had to ask every adult I knew about this nugget of the faith. The best I can recall is that everyone, from Monsignor Schreckenberger, R.I.P., to the school janitor, had a different answer. Two decades later I went to grad school and even enrolled in an elective on “eschatology,” where I was tossed a most intriguing oral question in a final exam, “Discuss the eschatological outlook of the first witnesses of the empty tomb on Easter.” To quote Captain Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I got a commendation for original thinking, a vital skill when you don’t really know the answer.
So here we are years later, and given that this is “Sacramental Saturday,” I thought it appropriate to visit the question again, with the knowledge that Jesus is the “perfect sacrament,” the full sign and symbol of his heavenly Father. There is historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (this data is recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus), and that at some point in time afterward his followers reported seeing Jesus alive. Liturgically speaking, Holy Saturday is the observance of the “in between;” if you pray the Liturgy of the Hours of Holy Saturday, the unique mood of this time is captured remarkably well.
The answer to the question of Jesus’ status on Holy Saturday is simple and yet quite complex. The Gospels, the Christological Councils of the Church, and the Nicene Creed are unanimous that Jesus died on the cross. This is a foundational pillar of our belief. But after the moment of his death, what next? Again, internal Gospel evidence points to his interment in a guarded and sealed tomb. And yet, in Luke’s account of the Passion, the “good thief” asks Jesus to remember him when “you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies that “this day you will be with me in paradise.” So, if you held a gun to my head, my personal belief is that at the moment of his death Jesus returned to the glory that was rightfully his from the beginning of time, soon to be followed by the luckiest career thief who ever lived. There is one minor hitch in my thinking—the Gospel of John, where on Easter Sunday morning Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to clutch him, “for I have not yet ascended to my father.” Hmmm.
A factor to consider is how Jews of Jesus’ time would have thought about life after death. Truth be told, the general consensus of Jewish believer held that death was death, period. The idea of body and soul was a Greek introduction that conservative Judaism would not have embraced. Recall that Martha was extremely distraught when Jesus arrived after the death of her brother Lazarus (John 11: 20-27), even in the then radical knowledge that Lazarus would rise on the last day. Martha was torn between a far distant future and the reality of her brother now several days decomposed in his tomb. The arbiters of Jewish belief, the Sadducees, attempted to put Jesus to scorn with their hypothetical case of a woman who married seven brothers—whose wife would she be in a grand resurrection at the end of time? This is a narrative of scorn and derision about life after death.
Consequently, the “Holy Saturday” followers of Jesus had nothing to cling to but Jesus’ promise. There were no back door escape routes such as separation of the soul or purgatorial waiting room. It is true that some trace of afterlife is mentioned in isolated portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically a place referred to as Sheol (later, Hades) where all humans were cast indiscriminately and apparently without personality. Sheol was not a major consideration in Jewish theology, but oddly, the concept of such a place would undergo a Christian revival of sorts centuries later.
In the Christian era, when the Church had more fully defined the saving power of Christ, there was concern for the great elders of the Judeo-Christian tradition who had died prior to the saving crucifixion of Jesus. This body would include all of the Old Testament major figures, Adam, Abraham, Moses, and even John the Baptist. There is a remarkable surviving sermon from the Christian era (possibly 600 A.D.?) that describes Jesus making a solemn visit to the underworld. (This sermon, by the way, is the second reading of Holy Saturday’s Office of Readings.) After his death on the cross Jesus undertakes a mission of mercy, in his own name and in the name of his Father, to seek out and reconcile Adam and Eve. They meet, and in a formula borrowed from the Christian Mass, exchange greetings. Jesus takes Adam by the hand and says, “Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you life.” Jesus goes on to describe his sufferings on their behalf, and then, recalling that they had been expelled from the garden of paradise, invites them to the eternal paradise. The text suggests, at least, that Jesus takes all the just with him into heaven.
The very existence of such a sermon suggests that Christians, in ways we do not fully understand today, intuited the significance of Holy Saturday and the meaning of the death of Christ. The phrase “descent into hell” becomes the final stone in the edifice of the Incarnation. Jesus assumed the entire human experience, which included real death and solidarity with the entire human race. We need at least one day to digest this aspect of the Redemptive act, and Holy Saturday is that day.
Looking at our original question, I guess the best we can say—and it is a lot---is that Jesus spent Holy Saturday just as he spent Good Friday and Easter Sunday: as the perfect sign of his Father, exuding love and redemption from the right hand of the Father, from the dusky mists of Sheol, from a tomb on the edge of Jerusalem—all of the above.