A few weeks ago, a friend asked me why Jesus did not go to the abode of the damned during the time between His Crucifixion and Resurrection. He asked this because the Church teaches that Jesus descended to the abode of the just dead but not to the abode of the damned (CCC 633). My short answer was that God will not release those who are in the abode of the damned because they chose to eternally oppose Him. So, going there would not have served a purpose. My answer was correct but lacking, as you will see.
Gehenna Vs. Abraham’s Bosom
First, what is the abode of the damned, and how does it differ from the abode of the just (or justified) dead? Before Christ’s Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, those who died in a state of grace went to the abode of the just dead, where they waited for the Messiah to redeem them from death. Those who died in unrepentant opposition to God chose the abode of the damned, from which they will never be released.
The Jews typically referred to the abode of the damned as Gehenna, what we typically mean by Hell. They referred to the abode of the just dead as Abraham’s Bosom, where the righteous dead awaited the Redeemer. Therefore, the Jews believed Hell/Hades/Sheol consisted of two compartments, Gehenna and Abraham’s Bosom. (Some scholars argue that Hell contained three or four compartments, but their theories are not relevant to this article.) The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus descended into Hell after His Crucifixion. But the Church has always taught that He descended to the Abraham’s-Bosom part of Hell, not to Gehenna.
Selling Vs. Redeeming
Second, Adam and Eve, through their Original Sin, sold mankind to death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12, 17, RSVCE), not damnation specifically. We place ourselves in damnation by choosing to die in a state of mortal sin, which is a state of obstinate refusal to be with God for eternity. Before Christ, many died in a state of friendship with God but simply needed a redeemer (one who could literally “buy back”) to buy them back from death. Although Christ redeemed all humans from death, all humans must enter His redemption with repentance, forgiveness, and grace.
Those who would eventually go to Abraham’s Bosom avoided damnation the same way we all avoid it – they repented and asked God for His forgiveness and grace. But forgiveness alone does not open the gates of Heaven for a person who remains sold to death. So, the human race needed someone with the power to buy us back from death, not absolutely, but as a matter of justice.
Sin Vs. Sacrifice
Original Sin and personal sin are an infinite dishonor to God’s infinite honor and dignity. Therefore, only someone with infinite value could pay an infinite price to redeem mankind. Accordingly, God the Son, Who is infinite, assumed a human nature. This allowed Him to represent mankind as the last, or new, Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45) and give an infinite sacrifice to the Father on man’s behalf. (I promise not to use the word infinite again in this article.)
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “In Hell, there is no redemption. But the saints were redeemed from limbo” [Abraham’s Bosom] (Summa Theologiae, Supp. Q. 69, a. 5). When someone is in Gehenna, that person cannot leave because they chose to be there, and God does not override free will. Conversely, before Christ, if someone went to Abraham’s Bosom, they could have been released but only after being redeemed.
Since Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, Abraham’s Bosom is empty because the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, redeemed everyone who was there. Since then, Gehenna has been the only populated compartment of Hell. Believers avoid this damnation by grace and through faith in the Messiah, who previously completed His redemptive work on the Cross.
So, Christ did not need to go to Gehenna because those who are there can never be released; they obstinately rejected God. Abraham’s Bosom is no longer populated (and may not exist at all) because Abraham was redeemed. He now resides in Heaven with all those who were in his bosom, meaning, those who were in friendship with him.
Purgatory, Heaven, and Hell
If you are wondering where Purgatory fits in, Catholic Stand has some excellent articles on the subject, as does this site. Briefly, Purgatory is a posthumous state of purgation, where God purges all defects and inclinations to sin from justified souls. It is a temporary place/condition for those who have physically died and are on their way to Heaven.
Consequently, we have only two ultimate destinations available to us after physical death: Heaven and Hell. The good folks, who die in a state of grace, Go to Heaven. The bad folks go to Hell. This reminds me of a popular Nirvana song from the 90s: “Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to Heaven where the angels fly. They go to the lake of fire and fry.” (That song will be in your head all day. You’re welcome!) God gives us the free will to choose one or the other. So, choose wisely!
A Future Article
Still, someone might ask, what about 1 Peter 3:18-20, which states that Christ preached to the spirits in prison who did not obey God in Noah’s day? This will be the subject of a future article. For now, just note that two major lines of descendants lived at the time of Noah. One line was from Cain and the other was from Seth. I think this makes for some interesting speculation, and the saints give us plenty of it.
This article originally appeared on Catholic Stand.