Review: Christ’s Descent into Hell

Some time ago, when I found it necessary to wrestle with the theological debate over natura pura (the “Ur-debate” in Catholic theology, as one social-media acquaintance put it), I advanced the point that contemporary Catholics had moved from the question, “Was Henri de Lubac right?” (about pure nature and an assortment of other things) to, “Lubac can’t be wrong.” I have seen on more than one occasion Catholics treat the suggestion that Lubac failed to properly understand St. Thomas Aquinas and his Scholastic interpreters as treasonous, even quasi-heretical. Why? Because, as the story goes, popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI thought well of Lubac and even cited him in both their formal papal statements and private theological works. A similar tactic has been employed to defend another “new theologian,” Hans Urs von Balthasar. When Alyssa (Lyra) Pitstick’s Light in Darkness (Eerdmans) hit the academic shelves in 2007, it set off a tidal-wave of hyperbolic criticism against Pitstick and anyone who dared agree with her that Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s Descent into hell was, well, defective. Perhaps no one led the charge against Pitstick with greater fury—and less charity—than the late Fr. Edward Oakes, though in the end neither he nor his intellectual cohorts managed to rehabilitate Balthasar’s twisted account of Christ’s infernal suffering. And so instead Pitstick’s critics threw John Paul II and Benedict XVI against her, and by doing so attempted to create the impression that Pitstick was little more than a retrograde, reactive theologian whose own thinking may be incongruent with the Catholic Faith.

Now comes Lyra Pitstick with her long overdue follow-up to Light in Darkness, entitled (in full) Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday (Eerdmans 2016). Written in a slightly looser style than her previous work, Pitstick sets out to undercut the myth that John Paul II and Benedict XVI (both before and after his papal election) endorsed Balthasar’s theology in toto, particularly Balthasar’s contestable account of what transpired on Holy Saturday. Relying on copious citations from the Church’s catechism (Trent and the contemporary iteration) and the works of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pitstick demonstrates once again where Balthasar chooses to deviate from Holy Tradition and, just as crucially, where the pontiffs consciously opted not to follow the Swiss theologian when it came to Christ’s descent. As an aid to readers, Pitstick provides appropriate appendices demonstrating what the Church actually professes concerning Christ’s descent, including an excerpt of John Paul II’s catechesis on the subject. By the close of this thin volume, there can be little doubt left in the reader’s mind that one of the most controversial elements of Balthasar’s already controversial theology is neither a part of the Church’s official doctrine nor a fixed element in the thought of the two popes who held Balthasar in the highest regard.

The implications of Pitstick’s new book are important. First, Pitstick gives a needful assist to all theologians who have found good reasons to disagree with the “giants” of the previous century. Instead of being pressured into feeling as if disagreeing with Balthasar, Lubac, etc. is tantamount to disagreeing with Holy Mother Church, theologians following Pitstick’s approach should feel emboldened in their disagreements when those disagreements in no way, shape, or form oppose the clear tenets of the Catholic Faith. In fact, where the “new theologians” themselves made statements contrary to the Faith, those statements should be identified, scrutinized, and charitably corrected so as to prevent further doctrinal confusion within the Catholic Church.

Second, Pitstick’s study ought to remind readers that popes are not infallible, or even magisterial, in their private theological opinions. While neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI endorsed Balthasar’s Holy Saturday theology, their personal high praise of the man’s theological work as a whole is not binding on the Catholic faithful. In other words, no Thomist of the Strict Observance is out-of-sorts with the Catholic Church because he happens to find many of the methods and findings of “new theologians” such as Balthasar problematic or flat-out erroneous. So long as disagreeing with Balthasar does not lead to disagreeing with settled points of doctrine as enshrined in creeds and catechisms, then there should be no issue with that disagreement.

And last, Christ’s Descent into Hell gives readers an important reminder of what the Universal Church—East and West—actually professes. The perverted idea of Christ’s hyper-suffering in hell as advanced by Balthasar is outshined by the reality that Christ delivered his Divine Light to the souls of the just on Holy Saturday before His physical Resurrection where He laid waste to death. Christ did not submit to the power of the devil after the Cross; instead He proclaimed his power and authority over Satan and the underworld.


  1. I would be interested to see Dr. Pitstick’s original thesis, as well as her recent excursus on that thesis. I suspect that she focuses on the Latin Western view of the subject of Christ’s descent into Hell. I suspect also that she differs from von Balthasar because the latter makes far more extensive use of the Eastern Patristic and liturgical witness on the subject. As for me, I intend on looking more deeply into the Eastern Patristic witness, for the purpose of fisking Dr. P’s thesis. I can already tell you that from what I have seen of the liturgical witness of the East, it thoroughly rejects Dr. P’s and the West’s alleged ‘witness’, which I believe to be rather niggardly of God’s grace.


    1. Does it? Because she points to the East as well. There is nothing in Eastern accounts of Holy Saturday that support vB’s eccentric views of Christ’s suffering on Holy Saturday or the idea that his triumph wasn’t accomplished on the Cross.

  2. I am at a disadvantage here, because I have only been reading this controversy from internet sources, as I am as poor as dirt right now, and can not afford to read the alleged ‘primary texts’ here (i.e. von Baltasar’s and Pitstick’s treatises). That said, and reading things at second hand, my understanding is that Dr. P. has said the following: 1) that Christ did not descend to all the dead, but only to the righteous souls such as Adam and Eve dwelling in sheol/hades/hell; 2) that our Lord Christ did not suffer as one of the dead in Hades; and 3) that our Lord Christ did not bring out ALL of the souls in Hell from their torments.

    I do not see how she can say that, and say that the East says that, particularly from the Lamentations of Great and Holy Saturday, which can be found, in a decent translation into English, here:

    I’ll be happy to parse and proof text that for you, should you wish it.

    Again, cheers!

    1. I will have to look over the Lamentations again, though if I recall correctly, they are of relatively recent vintage, having emerged in the 15th C. As for Christ appearing to “all the souls,” that too would need some unpacking because it seems out of sorts with the teaching of the East that Christ universally liberated all from death at the Resurrection. In other words, there were some who were indeed damned eternally before the Incarnation whose souls were not liberated at Pascha.

      1. ” In other words, there were some who were indeed damned eternally before the Incarnation whose souls were not liberated at Pascha.”

        You mean, like the Wise Thief? Again, just askin’.

        Seriously, though, my reading of Lamentations indicates that a more generous application of grace is being applied in the East than it is in the West. And I would be curious to see what the witness of the Fathers has to say about this. Somehow, I’m rather unimpressed with Dr. P.

        1. How would the Wise Thief have been damned? He made it to Paradise before everyone else — a point that is beautifully depicted in several Russian frescoes I have seen where the saints are lined up outside of the gates of Paradise and he is already on the other side. This would of course imply that Christ’s triumph was completed on the Cross since the Thief was there before Pascha.

          1. I remember reading about the so-called “intermediate state” about 15 years ago, when I was better disposed to more fantastical narratives, and was just getting into patristics.

            Roughly speaking, as I recall from the patristic sources (all pre-Nicene), it was generally thought that “Hades” –which was thought to be a real place beneath the earth– had two regions, “Abraham’s Bosom” (or “Paradise”, where the just would reside, anticipating the resurrection), and Hades proper, around the lake of fire, Gehenna, anticipating damnation. The cosmology is obsolete, though I would contend that the import of the narratives is not.

            I’ll probably eventually go back to the sources, and write a post about this before a few years’ time.

    1. I haven’t found it online. When I get home tonight from work I will see if I can find the exact cite from the Pitstick book.

  3. It may be worth pointing out that Catechisms are not Magisterial… this was formally declared by Rome regarding the Roman Catechism and I think that it is quite reasonable to assume that the same goes for the new Catechism.

    1. They may not be magisterial, but I think Pitstick’s point is correct, namely that they are reliable reflections of the magisterium and that vB’s views on Holy Saturday cannot find any support in either. But because vB is cited in the CCC (at least at the outset), people have used that as “proof” that his entire theology is orthodox.

    2. Dumb question: But since the Catechism isn’t magisterial, is there a compendium of magisterial documents that do exist? Like, where could I go if I just wanted to sit down and read everything the Church teaches to be unchangeable dogma? I have a feeling there is no such document/documents—(I’m of course excluding Scripture, as Scripture is a set of documents that are constantly being interpreted and re-interpreted).

  4. The translation, minimally, is soporific, “Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective” (SVS Press, 2009) by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) would be a good reference text when attempting to identify whether ‘The East’ is being accurately referenced. Through its mist-producing prose, I remember it being a pretty interesting, comprehensive review of the patristic literature on this issue. My memory has it presenting a good patristic case for what many in the West could consider a ‘non-traditional’ view of Hell and Christ’s descent thereto, what He achieved on Holy Saturday for those long-dead (righteous and sinners alike), and what the Harrowing of Hell means for those of us dying since the Great Sabbath and Resurrection.

    Whether His Emminence’s work and the authorities he cites better supports vB or Dr. P, JP2 or B16, or none of the above, I can’t say.

    1. That book hasn’t stood up very well under critical review, particularly Alfeyev’s selective approach to Latin sources. Moreover, judging by his more recent work, such as his multi-volume work on Orthodoxy, he seems to have walked back his earlier views on the temporal nature of hell.

      1. Whatever his “selective approach to Latin sources”, I think the value relative to this discussion are in the Eastern sources he provides. Even if, as some say, he is citing ‘minority’ opinions on such matters as the “temporal nature of hell”, they are not typically from insignificant theologians and saints lacking in authority and influence, at least in the East. Ignoring there is another, seemingly ‘deeper’ or perhaps simply parallel or minority view on such things does not make the case – true followers of Christ have almost always been in the minority worldwide, and perhaps even in the Church…

        1. That still doesn’t really work, as you know full well that the Orthodox Church does not follow Alfeyev and his views are indeed “minority.” But let’s suppose for a minute that this is an open question and Alfeyev — and those he cites — is correct. So what? It doesn’t really bear at all on the matter discussed in Pitstick’s book, which concerns the nature of Christ’s descent into Hades and whether or not he suffered unimaginable torments on Holy Saturday. Pace Bernard Brandt, his over-the-top dismissal of Pitstick hasn’t been backed up by a single cite to Eastern sources which support vB’s questionable theology of Holy Saturday — one which doesn’t seem to be sourced in anything but his own mind.

          1. I was simply offering an easily accessible text on what “The East” has said about this topic, and provided the caveat myself on Alfeyev’s work. If support could not even be found there, in a work that could – and I don’t think rightly, by the way – be considered minority and fringe in the East, then your broader point is supported. I don’t believe the view vB is espousing is supported in either Alfeyev or other more ‘mainstream’ Eastern authors on the same topic, either.

        2. And that’s not a criticism of anything you’ve written here, by the way. There is more room for theologoumena in the East, so these sorts of texts are an interesting additional view to consider.

          1. I am fine with taking a broad view of Holy Saturday if it’s supportable. I think what is 100% beyond the pale — a point Fr. Hopko makes in his talk on the subject — is that Christ suffered the torments of hell on Holy Saturday. That is at the heart of vB’s Holy Saturday theology and it is a complete novelty.

    1. Giffiths’s piece is typical. “What magisterium?” In short, because he cannot find a pope pronouncing on a particular topic, he takes the route that the topic must be “up for grabs” in terms of theological interpretation, which is a dubious conclusion. And judged from the Eastern perspective, vB’s account finds little, if any, direct support. The point being made in this combox about the Eastern view of grace being broader is fine; but it doesn’t touch on the main point of Pitstick’s critique, namely that Christ did not endure unimaginable, horrific suffering on Holy Saturday.

      Unfortunately I think some people missed this point.

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