Many WD readers will recall the theological skirmish which once, twice, and thrice erupted on the pages of First Things two and a half years ago. The warring parties were Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. The point in question was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s controversial Holy Saturday theology, wherein he argues that Christ’s descent into hell was a passive, i.e., suffering, descent. The traditional Holy Saturday motif is of the triumphant Christ descending in glory. Pitstick argued that it is “undeniable that [Balthasar’s] theology of Christ’s descent entails a de facto, and sometimes even conscious, rejection of Catholic tradition.” Oakes defended Balthasar’s orthodoxy, proposing that Pitstick’s “real service has been to argue against Balthasar so disagreeably that she will end up midwifing his theology into the mainstream of Church thinking.”
As this debate spilled over into the Catholic blogosphere, more than enough words were spent discussing Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s descent. I will not add any more. Instead, I would like to consider another prominent contemporary theologian’s take on Christ’s descent into hell. That theologian would be Joseph Ratzinger.
Two of Ratzinger’s early works seem to support the Balthasarian position of a suffering descent. In Introduction to Christianity, the key which Ratzinger employs to unlock the mystery of the creedal statement “He descended into hell” is Jesus’ death-cry of abandonment on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Ratzinger goes so far as to say that “Jesus’ cry on the cross” contains “the heart of what Jesus’ descent into hell . . . really means” (298).
While this aligning of Christ’s descent into hell with the death-cry from the Cross seems to suggest that Christ suffered in hell, nowhere in Introduction to Christianity does Ratzinger explicitly say that Christ suffered in hell. In the book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, however, he does. There the future pope uses a Buddhist image and speaks of Christ as the “true Boddhisattva” who unlike the other Boddhisattvas not only waits to enter heaven as long as one person is in hell, but goes further as “Christ descends into Hell and suffers it in all its emptiness” (216).
However, to those who now want to run off and exclaim that the Pope endorses Balthasar’s Holy Saturday theology, we must say, hold on one second. Ratzinger also has spoken on Christ’s descent into hell since becoming pope. These comments suggest a different position. In his 2007 Easter Vigil homily, the Pope preached:
Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he “descended into hell.” What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!” The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die – this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. “The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light” (cf. Ps 13812).
Here we see Pope asking the same question he did forty years earlier as a young theology professor – how to interpret Christ’s descent into hell – and sketching a markedly different answer. Gone is the association of the descent with the death-cry. Now it is interpreted through the images of glory and light. Here the Pope seems to endorse the traditional motif rather than the Balthasarian position.
So what conclusions might we draw? It is difficult to say. One possibility is that Ratzinger’s position has changed over the decades. Or as a second option we might try to make an argument showing that Ratzinger’s position regarding Christ’s descent as exhibited in Introduction to Christianity and Eschatology is not in contradiction with the 2007 Easter Vigil homily – in other words, that the positions can be reconciled. A third option is that Pope Benedict knows and lives within the demands of his office: Whereas it is fitting for a theologian to explore innovative interpretations of dogma, it is hardly appropriate for a pope to do so. While Ratzinger as a private theologian may have some sympathy for the Balthasarian position, he knows that it would not be right, at this moment, to endorse such a position as pope.
While I tend toward a combination of the second and third options, I cannot pretend to know with much certainty what Pope Benedict thinks about Christ’s descent into hell. I do know, however, that were I ever given the chance to ask a few theological questions of the Holy Father, that of Christ’s descent would be among the first on my list.
© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.