An Explanation of the Apostle’s Creed – Fifth Article of the Creed

detail from a painting of the 12 Apostles with their traditional lines from the Apostle's Creed, 1424; Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover, Germany; photographed by Jean Louis Mazieres 24 December 2015; swiped from Wikimedia Commons“He descended into hell, the third day He arose again from the dead.”

In this fifth article of the Creed two points are offered to our belief, namely, (1) that Jesus descended into hell, and (2) that on the third day He rose again from the dead.


Theologians teach that there are three distinct places in which those souls that have not reached eternal happiness are detained after death. According to the Catechism of the Council of Trent the first place is an extremely dark and awful prison, in which the souls of the damned are punished in an everlasting and unquenchable fire together with the evil spirits, called the fire of hell, the abyss, and in a stricter sense hell. Secondly, there is a purgatory, in which the souls of the good are punished for a time and purified, that they may be made worthy to enter into the presence of God, where nothing denied can enter.

A third place of waiting is the one in which the souls of the just who died before Christ awaited without any positive punishment the hour when they would be freed by the coming of their Redeemer. It was to these souls that the soul of Our Saviour went when His body was placed in the sepulcher. This place is called Limbo, and many theologians hold the opinion that it is here that the souls of unbaptized infants are now detained.

Christ went to Limbo, in the first place, to announce to the souls of the patriarchs, prophets, and just persons of the Old Testament that He had at last redeemed the world, reopened the long-closed heaven, and would soon take them with Himself into paradise.

These souls of the patriarchs, prophets, and other just persons of the Old Dispensation, who had departed this life before the coming of Christ and the completion of the atonement, could not enter heaven, for it was closed against them and the whole human family by Adam’s sin. It was first necessary that the Redeemer should come into the world, and by virtue of His death-sacrifice atone for the disobedience of the first Adam and so reopen the portals of paradise to the human race.

A second reason why Christ descended into Limbo is that He desired to manifest, even down there under the world, His charity, power, and glory, in order that all knees should bend, of those that are in heaven, on the earth* and under the earth (Philippians 2:10)

Great indeed must have been the joy and exultation of these holy souls when they saw the divine Redeemer, whom they so long and so anxiously had expected. It may well have surpassed the joy and exultation of the Israelites when, after seventy long years passed in slavish captivity in Babylon, far away from fatherland, they regained by the victory of Cyrus, king of the Persians, permission to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple of the God of Israel. For as the Israelites in Babylon could not forget their beloved Sion, it being ever uppermost in their thoughts as the only object of their sighs, of which they loved to speak to strangers, and of which they loved to sing praises on the banks of Babylon’s rivers, so, too, did the ancient fathers of our race and the other just souls in Limbo sigh and long for the celestial Sion, until at last the heavenly King, Jesus Christ, came to their relief and restored them to their true fatherland.

The descent of Christ into Limbo should have the effect of stimulating us to descend in spirit often, while we are yet on this earth, into hell. Not indeed into Limbo, but into hell itself, where the damned souls are burning, groaning, and writhing – into the place of torture, the abyss of misery, where God punishes mortal sin for all eternity. Such a practise will be a salutary one, and will have the ef- fect of keeping us out of hell when we die. “By fire,” says a pious teacher, ” the hungry lion is frightened away from his prey; so, by keeping hell-fire before our minds, we shall be frightened away from the commission of sin.” “The fire of our passions,” says Tertullian, “is often extinguished by thoughts on the fire of hell.” On the same subject Saint Chrysostom writes, “He who, while out of hell, goes down there sometimes in thought will surely not be sent there after death. “And Saint Bernard warns us to “descend voluntarily into hell often during life, that after our death we may not be compelled to go there.”


After Christ had consoled and freed the souls in Limbo His soul united itself with His sacred body that had lain in the tomb, and on the third day, which was Easter Sunday – counting Good Friday, the day of His death, as the first – the Saviour accomplished His resurrection from the dead. The Holy Scriptures relate: “And the next day, which followed the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate,

“Saying: Sir, we have remembered, that that seducer said, while He was yet alive: After three days I will rise again.

“Command therefore the sepulcher to be guarded until the third day; lest perhaps His disciples come, and steal Him away, and say to the people: He is risen from the dead: and the last error shall be worse than the first.

“Pilate said to them: You have a guard; go, guard it as you know.

“And they departing, made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone, and setting guards.

“And in the end of the Sabbath when it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen, and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.

“And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven: and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it:

“And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow.

“And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men.

“And the angel answering said to the women: Fear not you: for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified:

“He is not here: for He is risen, as He said; Come, and see the place where the Lord was laid.

“And going quickly tell ye His disciples that He is risen: and behold He will go before you into Galilee: there you shall see Him; lo I have foretold it to you ” (Matthew 27:62-28:7).

Christ then was really risen. He rose, too, of His own inherent power and was not simply called out of death by God, as were the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nairn, Lazarus, of those dead who came forth from their graves at the death of Christ. The divinity of Christ was not separated from His body while it was in the grave, nor from His soul while it was in Limbo. He rose from the dead by His own divine power, and in the way described by Himself in one of His predictions, that is, ” I lay down My life that I may take it again: … I lay it down of Myself, and I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it up again” (John 10:17,18).

It was therefore of no avail for the Jews to seal the stone on the sepulcher and to place there a vigilant guard. Their precautions came to grief and shame. In fact Our Saviour made use rather of His enemies and their malice in order to neutralize all the objections that doubt and unbelief could raise up against the truth of His resurrection. His own enemies were compelled to testify that they could not prevent the resurrection, that God indeed is greater than the forces of men, that God’s will is unassailable and unconquerable, and that He renders vain and idle the wicked efforts of His creatures.

On the same day Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalen, who remained weeping at the sepulcher (John 20:17), and in the evening to the disciples, who were gathered together with the doors shut for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). On the same day He showed Himself to the two disciples who were on their way to Emmaus, journeyed in their company, explained the Scriptures to them and broke bread with them (Luke 24:13-30). On that same day, too, He appeared to Simon Peter (Luke 24:34). But He was not seen only by these few women and the disciples, who might have been deceived; He again appeared on the next Sunday, when Thomas, who was absent the first time was present, and was permitted to touch the very wounds of his risen Master and could therefore, as he did, profess his faith in the resurrection and proclaim it before others (John xx. 28). Another time, when the disciples were engaged in their pursuit of fishing, Jesus joined them, ate with them, and after they had dined committed to Peter the care of the spiritual sheep and lambs purchased by the blood of Calvary (John 21:15).

After His resurrection Jesus remained forty days among His friends, communing with them on things concerning the kingdom of heaven. He initiated them into the mysteries of His holy Church, explained to them the meaning of the Scriptures, and promised to them the speedy coming of the Holy Ghost to comfort them. If there is in history any fact that is fully and firmly proved, it is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Elevated above all doubts it stands forth as the crowning and completion of the redemption of the world.

On the truth of the Saviour’s resurrection rests the whole groundwork of Christianity, which stands or falls with this doctrine. For if Christ truly rose from the dead He is God; if Christ is God then the religion brought by Him is a true religion revealed from heaven; in a word, all is true that was taught by Christ. “For,” as Saint Paul says, “if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Countless Christian heroes have confessed, professed, and defended with their life’s blood this fundamental truth of the resurrection of Christ. There was not one among the apostles who was not willing and happy, in his belief in the resurrection of the Lord, to undergo a cruel martyrdom, “that they might find a better resurrection.” (Hebrews 11:35)

For us the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ is extremely important and deeply consoling, for it fortifies us in our faith in the divinity of Christ and in our hopes for our own happy resurrection. On this point Saint Peter writes, “God raised Him up from the dead, and hath given Him glory, that your faith and hope might be in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)

The doctrine of the resurrection of Christ strengthens our faith in the divinity of Christ. For must not He necessarily be God who came forth from the grave glorious and immortal, by His own power? Can any man give life to himself and by his own forces come out of death? No. Christ alone could do that, because He is true God, and the Son of the living God.

By the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ, our hopes are renewed and sustained for our own happy resurrection.

Saint Paul says again, “If Christ be preached that He arose again from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen again.” (1 Corinthians 15:12,13)

“Knowing that He who raised up Jesus, will raise up us also with Jesus, and place us with you.” (2 Corinthians 4:14)

Therefore we may be consoled and say with the patient Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day, I shall rise out of the earth: and I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God. Whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold: this my hope is laid up in my bosom.” (Job 19:25-27)

If we would rise like Christ out of the grave to a new and glorious life in heaven we must first of all rise up from the death of sin to a new life of virtue, as Saint Paul admonishes us, “As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life…. Let not sm, therefore, reign in your mortal body, so as to obey the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of iniquity unto sin: but present yourselves to God as those that are alive from the dead: and your members as instruments of justice unto God.” (Romans 6:4,12,13) Again, “Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth.” (Colossians 3:1,2)

If you are really risen to a new life you should shine with purity of morals, innocence, sanctity, modesty, justice, benevolence and humility. (Roman Catechism)

The best evidence that we have risen with Christ is our appetite for “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy.” (Philippians 4:8) “For,” as the Catechism of the Council of Trent says very aptly, “as the appetite is used to mark sickness or good health, so when one finds in his heart a liking for heavenly things it may be taken as a sign that he who is thus affected has risen together with Christ into a new life.”

– text taken from An Explanation of the Apostle’s Creed: A Thorough Exposition of Catholic Faith, by Father H Rolfus, D.D., published by Benziger Brothers, 1907; it has the Imprimatur of +John M Farley, Auxiliary Bishop and Adminsitrator of New York, June 1902