Good morning father Angelo,
I was reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church (in particular the articles 632 et seq.) and a few doubts came to my mind, therefore I ask you for clarification.
After His death on the cross and the Resurrection, Jesus descended into hell “as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (CCC 632).
However, even if “all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer” (CCC 633) descended into hell, this “does not mean that their lot is identical” (CCC 633). As can be seen in the Catechism, it was only the “holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell” (CCC 633).
The same thing was declared during the Council of Rome in 745: “Jesus did not descend into hell to free the damned” but (as it was declared at the fourth Council of Toledo in 625) “to free the righteous who preceded him”.
I think that the qualification of “righteous” and “damned” derives from the way they lived on this earth.
However (and here comes the theological doubt I have), these people lived their earthly life without the possibility of receiving the Good News, therefore they could not encounter the possibility of redemption and of the salvation that is associated with it. The same deficiency should also be attributed to those who couldn’t become aware of the Good News, even if they lived posteriorly to the Incarnation of the Word.
Maybe that Jesus, descending into hell and bringing there the message -as it is said by the apostle in 1 Peter 3,19- he gave all the souls in hell another chance of conversion? A possibility which is similar to the one that every one of us has during this earthly life, that is of becoming righteous?
I thank you for your attention and I greet you cordially,
The answer from father Angelo
1- The ancient pagans who lived before Christ had neither the Gospel to lead their behaviour, nor the Law that was given to Moses By God. However, they had something precious which could enlighten them: their conscience.
Referring to conscience, there is an illuminating passage in the second chapter of the epistle to the Romans: “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them” (Romans 2, 14-15).
2- They had the natural law, which in fact corresponds to the ten commandments. And even without knowing it, they also had the supernatural aid of the grace merited by Jesus Christ, since the sacrifice of the Lord acted retroactively on all the people who lived before Him.
This was the case for the grace that Our Lady received from the first moment of her existence.
The grace that sanctified John the Baptist in the womb of her mother was merited by Jesus.
The same thing is to be said for all the righteous of the Old Testament, starting from Adam and Eve in their repentance after original sin.
We consider as the righteous of the Old Testament all the people who died in the grace of God, even if they ignored possessing it.
3- Since God wants the salvation of every man (cf 1 Timothy 2,4) and because salvation (supernatural communion with God) is a gift that exceeds the natural order, it is necessary that God offers to every man the appropriate means to salvation, i.e. grace.
God gives grace to every man of goodwill, according to a theological principle that sounds like this: Faciendi quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam (God does not deny grace to all those acting according to their duty).
Actually, it is grace itself that prevents them and helps them to enact justly the moral law in its integrity: that’s because no man can observe it by his sole forces, even more after the original sin.
Also, grace is equally necessary to sanctify their deeds and their lives, in order to make them suitable for the supernatural communion with God.
4- Like the jews in the Old Testament, who saved themselves in virtue of their faith in the Messiah and by acting accordingly to the upright conscience, similarly the pagans saved themselves by following natural law and by having a little faith to orient their life and therefore live righteously, accordingly to what can be read in the epistle to the Hebrews: “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11, 6).
5- For those, we can apply what the Second Vatican Council said referring to the salvation of non-Christians: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.” (Lumen Gentium 16)
And also: “we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes 22).
In this same vein, here is what can be read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.” (CCC 1260)
6-Therefore, Christ descended into hell and brought to Paradise all the righteous, i.e. those who were purified and in a state of grace.
They all had already passed particular judgement: by this, they had all received the everlasting and irrevocable sentence of their salvation or damnation.
I bless you, I wish you every good and assure you of remembrance to the Lord.