This is from a first version of my PhD dissertation, which was submitted for examination last year. The examiners requested a major revision, and specifically said I could do without the chapter on the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, so it has been cut. I still think it says some important things, so here it is.
The Apostles Creed, unlike the Nicene Creed, describes what happens to Jesus upon his death: descendit ad inferos. This has been translated in the English Book of Common Prayer (1549) as “he descended into hell” and by the International Consultation on English Texts (“ICET”)(1975) as “He descended to the dead.” These words are derived from two passages in scriptures:
He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison. 1 Peter 3.19-20
When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” Ephesians 4.9
Since the Eighth Century this has been depicted in Orthodox icons of the Resurrection as The Harrowing of Hell, where Jesus destroys the gates of hell, tramples down Satan, and releases the Old Testament saints, typically Adam and Eve, and David and Solomon. Dante in the Inferno Canto IV.52-63 has the Roman poet Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC) describe the arrival of Jesus:
I was still new to this estate of tears
when a Mighty One descended here among us,
crowned with the sign of His victorious years.
He took from us the shade of our first parent,
of Abel, his pure son, of ancient Noah,
of Moses, the bringer of law, the obedient.
Father Abraham, David the King,
Israel with his father and his children,
Rachel, the holy vessel of His blessing,
and many more He chose for elevation
among the elect. And before these, you must know,
no human soul had ever won salvation.
Balthasar is wary of such a concrete imaging. In Chapter 4 of Mysterium Paschale (English translation 1970; first published in German as Theologie der Drei Tage in 1969), “Going to the Dead: Holy Saturday”, he takes a minimalist approach to the dogma. He describes the “descent” as a “being with the dead,” a continuation of the solidarity with humanity found in the Incarnation in that Jesus was truly dead as much as any other human.
He discusses 1 Peter 3.19-20 and Ephesians 4.9 in the context of a multitude of New Testament texts, concluding that,
it is neither a question of a ‘struggle’ nor of a ‘descent’, but of absolute, plenary power, due to the fact that the Lord was dead (he has experienced death interiorly) and now lives eternally, having vanquished death in itself and for all, making it something ‘past’.
After discussing the relevant New Testament passages he reviews the theological tradition. The first thing he does is argue that inferos should be understood as שְׁאוֹל (Sheol), the shadowy underworld to which all the dead go, in most of the Tanach/Old Testament. It is less than full existence, a place of passivity and inaction where one cannot even praise God.
This idea of Sheol appears inconsistent with later Jewish beliefs in which people are rewarded with going to heaven and others condemned to hell, such as in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16.19-31); these understandings are undoubtedly influenced by contact with Persians and early Zoroastrian beliefs, and fit uncomfortably with the early beliefs about Sheol. Balthasar discusses Augustine’s attempt to harmonize the account, so that Lazarus was in a higher level of Hell than the Rich Man. This is complicated even more by the emergence of the belief in the general resurrection, and Jesus’s own resurrection. Balthasar reviews the theological opinions about the reality of Hell, but ultimately concludes that these theological speculations diminish the import of death. “It tells us nothing about a ‘descent’, much less a ‘combat’ and least of all a ‘triumphant victory procession’ across Hades.” For Balthasar, death is about being cut off from the living, and the dead do not communicate even with each other. They do not “wait” for Christ, because they are not really in time, and they are deprived of the vision of God. It is this otherwise indefinite state that Balthasar sees Christ entering upon death, in solidarity with all humanity.
Balthasar develops this understanding of the “descent” as a kenotic passion that continues and goes beyond what happened on the cross. He challenges the Reformation belief of Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon that “Jesus experienced on the Cross Hell’s tortures in place of sinners” and places against it Nicholas of Cusa’s belief that Christ was obedient even to death, and that, “Christ’s suffering, the greatest one could conceive, was like that of the damned who cannot be damned any more.” Christ experiences a second death, a vision of death, which is nothing less than “the pure substantiality of ‘Hell”, which is ‘sin in itself’.” It is through this suffering in Hell that Jesus becomes the apocalyptic figure in Revelation 1.18: “I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” Sheol, Hades, Hell – whatever one calls it – the fact that Christ has entered into it means that he has “transformed what was a prison into a way.”
The “descent” thus becomes a moment of salvation. Even in death a human being is not cut off from the divine; within eternal death a manifesto of eternal life is planted. Balthasar reads the Orthodox icons of “Anastasis” as a conflation of the Three Days into one moment, and the Medieval Mystery Plays, which have Christ preaching to the dead, as anticipations of Easter. Icons and Mystery Plays go beyond what theology can affirm, and the theologian must follow at a distance, even while contemplative imagination strides forward.
 Dante Alighieri, The Inferno translated by John Ciardi (New York NY: Mentor/New American Library, 1954), p. 51.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter translated by Aidan Nichols (San Francisco CA: Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 150.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 156.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 161-162.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 165.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 169.
 Nicholas of Cusa, Excitationes 10, (Basle 1565), p. 659, quoted in Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 170.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 173.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 174.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 175.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 180.
 Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, p. 179-180.
 Quoted in Aidan Nichols, A Key to Balthasar: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 44.