Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Our colleague who wrote the article on “Hell” has made no mention of the descent of Jesus Christ into hell. This is an article of faith of high importance; it is expressly particularized in the creed of which we have already spoken. It is asked whence this article of faith is derived; for it is not to be found in either of our four gospels, and the creed called the Apostles’ Creed is not older than the age of those learned priests, Jerome, Augustine, and Rufinus.

It is thought that this descent of our Lord into hell is taken originally from the gospel of Nicodemus, one of the oldest.

In that gospel the prince of Tartarus and Satan, after a long conversation with Adam, Enoch, Elias the Tishbite, and David, hears a voice like the thunder, and a voice like a tempest. David says to the prince of Tartarus, “Now, thou foul and miscreant prince of hell, open thy gates and let the King of Glory enter,” etc. While he was thus addressing the prince, the Lord of Majesty appeared suddenly in the form of man, and He lighted up the eternal darkness, and broke asunder the indissoluble bars, and by an invincible virtue He visited those who lay in the depth of the darkness of guilt, in the shadow of the depth of sin.

Jesus Christ appeared with St. Michael; He overcame death; He took Adam by the hand; and the good thief followed Him, bearing the cross. All this took place in hell, in the presence of Carinus and Lenthius, who were resuscitated for the express purpose of giving evidence of the fact to the priests Ananias and Caiaphas, and to Doctor Gamaliel, at that time St. Paul’s master.

This gospel of Nicodemus has long been considered as of no authority. But a confirmation of this descent into hell is found in the First Epistle of St. Peter, at the close of the third chapter: “Because Christ died once for our sins, the just for the unjust, that He might offer us to God; dead indeed in the flesh, but resuscitated in spirit, by which He went to preach to the spirits that were in prison.”

Many of the fathers interpreted this passage very differently, but all were agreed as to the fact of the descent of Jesus into hell after His death. A frivolous difficulty was started upon the subject. He had, while upon the cross, said to the good thief: “This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” By going to hell, therefore, He failed to perform His promise. This objection is easily answered by saying that He took him first to hell and afterwards to paradise; but, then, what becomes of the stay of three days?

Eusebius of Cæsarea says that Jesus left His body, without waiting for Death to come and seize it; and that, on the contrary, He seized Death, who, in terror and agony, embraced His feet, and afterwards attempted to escape by flight, but was prevented by Jesus, who broke down the gates of the dungeons which enclosed the souls of the saints, drew them forth from their confinement, resuscitated them, then resuscitated Himself, and conducted them in triumph to that heavenly Jerusalem which descended from heaven every night, and was actually seen by the astonished eyes of St. Justin.

It was a question much disputed whether all those who were resuscitated died again before they ascended into heaven. St. Thomas, in his “Summary,” asserts that they died again. This also is the opinion of the discriminating and judicious Calmet. “We maintain,” says he, in his dissertation on this great question, “that the saints who were resuscitated, after the death of the Saviour died again, in order to revive hereafter.”

God had permitted, ages before, that the profane Gentiles should imitate in anticipation these sacred truths. The ancients imagined that the gods resuscitated Pelops; that Orpheus extricated Eurydice from hell, at least for a moment; that Hercules delivered Alcestis from it; that Æsculapius resuscitated Hippolytus, etc. Let us ever discriminate between fable and truth, and keep our minds in the same subjection with respect to whatever surprises and astonishes us, as with respect to whatever appears perfectly conformable to their circumscribed and narrow views.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01