Commenting on earlier sources, Ephesians 4:8-9 does after all read: "Therefore, it says: "He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men." What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended into the lower (regions) of the earth?"(NAB translation). The idea is that the ascent and descent are all part of the same process of redemption. Many Christians don't seem to know what to make of that. What little we can make of it, indeed of the very nature of the Atonement, is mysterious enough. But that doesn't mean we can't benefit from meditating on the mystery.
The Apostles' Creed echoes Ephesians in saying that Jesus descended into the underworld. In English, said destination is often translated as 'hell', from the Latin infernum, the same word used in the Western tradition for the place of sempiternal punishment. But, I am told, the Greek text is the original and echoes the scripture verse just cited. Thus the earliest extant "creed," itself an expansion of a still-earlier baptismal formula, metaphorically describes a complex reality which most modern Christians barely pause to consider. The received doctrine, no doubt true as far as it goes, is that the place in question of "the limbo of the fathers," i.e. of our fathers in faith who lived before the time of Christ. An ancient homily even has Jesus, having descended to the underworld after his death, preaching to and liberating Adam himself. That's in keeping with John 12: 32's reference to the Crucifixion: "When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself." His "lifting up" on the Cross—an event which, to the ancient mind, was supremely humiliating—is also the first stage of his "glorification." That glorification continues with Jesus' descent after his death. But that should tell us that the further descent ad infernum is not just glory and triumph. It is descent and dereliction, for it is part of the Passion as a whole: and the glory consists in a love willing to reach down to us even as far as that. In fact, the descent into hell is the completion of the Son's loving descent on our behalf: the very descent by which he "became sin" (2 Cor 5:21) for us so that we might be freed from slavery to sin.
I came to think that way by reading Hans Urs von Balthasar. As far as I know, only he among major theologians has thought hard about all this. According to my own interpretation (which, along with several dollars, will get you a latté), his argument was that, in order to complete our redemption, Jesus had to experience what it's like to be alienated from God even though he could not, objectively speaking, ever have ceased being in communion with the Father. Given the patristic dictum "whatever is not assumed is not redeemed," Jesus had to "assume" all the effects of sin while being sinless. That's how he could "become sin" without sinning. So it wasn't enough that our Immortal King became sin by dying, in a supremely humiliating way, as a condemned criminal. He had to become sin by going to the furthest place from heaven one could go: "the lower reaches" where the souls of the dead were imprisoned. But because his is an unconquerable love, Jesus's presence in such an apparently desperate place was a victory for him and for the souls of the just abiding there. They greeted Jesus with joy and were liberated. Tradition does not say how the souls of the unjust greeted him. It doesn't have to. They are there to stay. But that is not for want of divine love manifested to them. The same, I believe, has been true ever since.
Some who pride themselves on their orthodoxy suspect that von Balthasar's speculation about the descent into hell is heretical. There was a dustup about that in First Things last year, calmly and judiciously reviewed by Richard Reno, who provides links to it. In my own view, such a suspicion overlooks the pattern of descent-as-ascent that is so clear in St. John. There is no contradiction in saying that Jesus achieved the best by experiencing the worst, even emotionally. He didn't just quote Psalm 22 in saying on the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He felt that. But in due course he got his answer because, in the economy of salvation, the two go hand in hand.
And so it is for us, to the extent we get serious about following him. It is as much in our weaknesses and failures, our sufferings deserved and undeserved, as in our virtues and successes that our loving Savior abides with us. His power is most manifest when we are powerless. I cannot always remember that when I contemplate the great failures and disappointments of my life. I feel very far from God at such times, when I am not even grateful for the gift of life. Sometimes, in my impatience with reality, I don't even remember it amid my lesser weaknesses and disappointments. The least I can do tonight, whens I enter the church in darkness for the Easter Vigil service, is to offer such failures with the petition that I remember to remember that He has been through it all, and worse.