Jesus Descended to Limbo, Purgatory, and Hell

When Jesus died on the Cross, His soul separated from His body, but the Divine Nature remained united to each — to His soul and to His body. Yet the soul of Jesus Christ was not judged by God, as all our souls are judged immediately after death, for Christ is God. The infinitely perfect God has no need to judge Himself, nor is anyone else able to judge Him.

After the soul of Jesus Christ departed from His body at His death on the Cross, Jesus visited three places, one after another: Limbo, Purgatory, Hell.

The formula in the Creed, “He descended into Hell,” uses the term “Hell” in the general sense of places in the afterlife other than Heaven. This formula follows from the broad meaning of Hell in the Old Testament, since the Jews did not have explicit knowledge of Limbo and Purgatory, and their understanding of the afterlife was limited. But the truth of these three places is nevertheless implicit in the Old Testament Scriptures.

In Limbo, Jesus visited the souls of those who died in a state of grace prior to the Lord’s salvific death AND who had completed their time of purification in Purgatory — in so far as this was just and necessary in each case. They waited in Limbo for Christ to open the gates of Heaven by His salvific death on the Cross. The souls in Limbo included Jews as well as non-Jews — as long as they died in the state of grace and completed their time in Purgatory (if necessary). But for the most devout among the Jews, less time in Purgatory was necessary, since they had an explicit love, faith, and hope in the one true God. And some may perhaps have been sent by God directly to Limbo. However, the non-Jews, who died before Christ, knew of God only indirectly and very imperfectly, by whatever truths they could perceive, in heart and mind, from reason alone or from the highly flawed pagan religions. So the non-Jews would be more likely to spend a longer time in Purgatory, and less likely to go directly to Limbo.

In both Limbo and Purgatory, Jesus taught the souls, so that they would now have explicit knowledge of their Savior God, whom they previously knew, to one extent or another, only in limited ways. In this way, the souls who entered Heaven, after a time in Purgatory and/or Limbo, already knew and loved Christ explicitly. They entered the state of grace in this life by a baptism of desire or of blood, since they lived prior to the establishment of the Sacrament of Baptism. They were truly saved by Christ, though in a hidden manner. For only the Jews, in ancient times, had explicit knowledge of the Messiah, and even for them, Christ was largely hidden under figures found in the Old Testament Scriptures and mysterious rituals. But when Jesus finally arrived in Limbo and Purgatory, He taught them as if giving a second Sermon on the Mount, instructing them thoroughly in all the Gospel truths, so that they would be most well prepared to enter Heaven.

The Descent into Hell

Now some foolish persons today claim that Jesus did not descend at all to Hell itself, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not extinguished” [Mk 9:43], but only to Limbo and Purgatory. Such an idea has never been taught by the Magisterium. The Church has never said that Jesus did not descend to Hell itself. However, the exact meaning of the assertion of the Creed, “He descended into Hell”, has also never been defined. A few different positions are tenable, being both faithful and reasonable. However, the idea that Jesus in no way descended to the Hell of eternal fire is unreasonable and unfaithful.

The opinion of St. Thomas is that Jesus visited Limbo and Purgatory, as well as Hell itself, but in different ways.

“A thing is said to be in a place in two ways. First of all, through its effect, and in this way Christ descended into each of the hells [i.e. Limbo, Purgatory, Hell itself], but in a different manner. For going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending to there He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to those who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell [i.e. Limbo] … He shed the light of glory everlasting.

In another way a thing is said to be in a place through its essence: and in this way Christ’s soul descended only into that part of hell wherein the just were detained [i.e. Limbo and Purgatory], so that He visited them “in place,” according to His soul, whom He visited “interiorly by grace,” according to His Godhead. Accordingly, while remaining in one part of hell, He wrought this effect in a measure in every part of hell, just as while suffering in one part of the earth He delivered the whole world by His Passion.”

“Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, penetrated to all the lower parts of the earth, not passing through them locally with His soul, but by spreading the effects of His power in a measure to them all: yet so that He enlightened only the just….” [Summa Theologica, III, Q. 52, A. 2]

This opinion of Saint Thomas is still tenable today, for it is not contradicted or undermined by any magisterial teaching issued in the 700 years since the time of Thomas. However, it is not dogma or doctrine, but only a reasonable and faithful opinion.

A different opinion, which is just as tenable, is offered by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. A vision given by God to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich showed Jesus visiting all three places, Limbo, Purgatory, and Hell itself, in Person. It is not entirely clear from her words whether Jesus visited Hell in soul, or only by the power of His Divine Nature. However, her description tends toward the former: a visit in soul to Hell itself.

“Finally, I beheld him approach to the centre of the great abyss, that is to say, to Hell itself; and the expression of his countenance was most severe…. the gates of Hell were thrown open by the angels…. our Lord spoke first to the soul of Judas, and the angels then compelled all the demons to acknowledge and adore Jesus.” [Emmerich, Dolorous Passion, Chapter LIX, A Detached Account of the Descent into Hell.]

There is nothing to prevent Jesus from visiting even Hell itself in soul. For as God, He is the warden of the prison called Hell. A warden can visit his own prison without suffering detainment or punishment. In fact, it is fitting for a warden to visit the prison over which he exercises judgment and authority.

My Opinion

It was fitting for Christ to visit Limbo and Purgatory in soul, rather than only by His Divine Nature. For Christ obtained their salvation by becoming a man, body and soul, and by His death, which is the separation of body and soul. His visit to Limbo and Purgatory in soul (united to the Divine Nature), but without His body, showed that the Son of God became a man, since he had a soul, and showed that He had died, since His body was lacking.

So then, in my theological opinion, it was also fitting for Christ to visit Hell itself in soul, not solely by an effect from the Divine Nature as St. Thomas says. For even the reprobate souls in Hell were justly given the knowledge that, when they committed actual mortal sin and final impenitence, they sinned against a God so loving and merciful that He became a man, and then suffered death, in order to offer them forgiveness and salvation. An offer they refused.

However, there was still a very substantial difference between the Lord’s visits to Limbo and Purgatory as compared to Hell itself. For in the former, He visited each soul individually, as if face-to-face, and He enlightened them with His grace, so that they were now thoroughly ready to enter Heaven. But in the latter, He visited the entire group of damned souls and devils, not individually and not so as to bestow any graces, but instead like a leader standing before and above a crowd — so that they would know fully why they were condemned to eternal punishment — because they obstinately refused the abundant graces and mercies offered to them by the God who became man and who died for them.

Yes, the devils and the reprobate souls in Hell were compelled by the power of God and by His prevenient grace to acknowledge that Jesus is God made man, just as Sacred Scripture says:

{2:9} Because of this, God has also exalted him and has given him a name which is above every name,
{2:10} so that, at the name of Jesus, every knee would bend, of those in heaven, of those on earth, and of those in hell,
{2:11} and so that every tongue would confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.

Notice that even those in Hell, devil and humans, must admit that Jesus is Lord and God. It was fitting, then, for Jesus to visit Hell in soul, so that they could acknowledge that God became man, and that He died for them, and that they dwell forever in Hell only because of their own free choices.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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3 Responses to Jesus Descended to Limbo, Purgatory, and Hell

  1. Bob says:

    Everything you say also agrees with the unabridged Mystical City of God by Mary of Agreda. In her account; it also says that ALL of the souls in Purgatory and Limbo then entered into heaven. I then believe that all the souls of aborted babies go to heaven by either Baptism of desire or Baptism of blood. Good article. Thanks. Bob. PS I hope you are feeling better.

  2. lovingrationality says:

    The only question I have is this: If God truly went in His essence (and not merely His effect, as Thomas wrote) into Hell, which is the rejection of the presence of God (or more specifically, the chosen existence of the absence of God), wouldn’t Hell, while in the presence of God like a light
    in darkness, cease to be Hell? Isn’t Heaven just the complete presence of God, and when God’s presence goes “where” He allows those who reject Him to be, He somehow violates their freedom of will to be away from God?

    To me, it is an apparent contradiction. What am I getting wrong?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Jesus had the Beatific Vision of God during his life on earth. Yet this did not bring Heaven to those who were not in the state of grace. So Jesus could visit Hell in soul, united to His Divinity, without giving the Beatific Vision to the denizens of Hell.

      Hell is a place, and the prisoners there not only lack the Beatific Vision, but also lack the state of grace, and many are given active punishments. None of that changes if Christ visits in soul and Divinity, not merely in power.

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