In the Creed we say about Christ's journey that he "descended into hell." What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery.
The liturgy applies to Jesus' descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23: "Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!" The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die -- this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. "The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light" (cf. Psalm 13812). Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice" (John 2:2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings -- with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light.
But we may ask: what is the meaning of all this imagery? What was truly new in what happened on account of Christ? The human soul was created immortal -- what exactly did Christ bring that was new? The soul is indeed immortal, because man in a unique way remains in God's memory and love, even after his fall. But his own powers are insufficient to lift him up to God. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights. And yet, nothing else can satisfy man eternally, except being with God. An eternity without this union with God would be a punishment. Man cannot attain those heights on his own, yet he yearns for them. "Out of the depths I cry to you." Only the Risen Christ can bring us to complete union with God, to the place where our own powers are unable to bring us. Truly Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to his Body we have life, and in communion with his Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free and our life is hope.
Christ's descent "into hell" (ad infernum; "into the underworld", called Sheol by the Jews and Hades by the Greeks) was the far point of a cycle of exitus and reditus. Beginning with the Incarnation and culminating in the Ascension, the cycle marks out the parameters of divine revelation and, at the same time, of the life into which we are drawn as Christians. Between its beginning and end, Christ's going forth from the light and glory of God reached to the depths of darkness, and his return to the Father brought to heaven, in light and glory, all those who had awaited him in those depths. What he thus brought which was "new" was not eternal life in the sense of the continuation of mere existence; the just in Sheol or Hades already had that in virtue of the natural immortality of the soul, and of course it could not satisfy. It was merely a shadow of the natural life survived by the soul; it did not include the body, and therefore not the whole person; more importantly, it did not of itself entail that union with God to which, it has been revealed, we are destined from all eternity. As the Pope says, an eternity in such a state would be a punishment; this is why the Church has defined that all who die "in original sin alone" go ad infernum. It was a punishment even for those who had not died in actual, mortal sin, which is why Christ is said to have "liberated" them in his descent there. But that liberation was the first instance of what we are all offered as believers.
As I've already impled in Waiting in the Shadows, much of our lives as believers is like Sheol. Although Christ has accomplished our redemption objectively and in principle, subjectively and in practice it needs our cooperation, which is rarely what it should be; as a result, we live in the grey, the shadows, growing only fitfully if at all toward the light. Here I point out that much of the modern world is like Sheol too. While much good persists and is done, so is much evil, and in itself the world can give no hope to the good who must live in it. That is why the Pope issues this invitation:
In union with his love, borne aloft on the wings of love, as persons of love, let us descend with him into the world's darkness, knowing that in this way we will also rise up with him. On this night, then, let us pray: Lord, show us that love is stronger than hatred, that love is stronger than death. Descend into the darkness and the abyss of our modern age, and take by the hand those who await you. Bring them to the light!
We cannot avoid "hell." With Christ, we can only return from it, and thus lead others from it too. That is vital to remember when darkness and hell seem stronger than light and heaven.