In approaching this question, we must first examine the word hell. Usually, when we hear the word hell, we immediately think of the place of eternal damnation for those who have rejected God in this life and have committed mortal sins without repentance.
However, in the Old Testament, hell (or sheol in the Hebrew texts or hades in Greek texts) referred to “the place of the dead.” (Interestingly, our English word hell is derived from a Germanic name for the place of the dead in Tuetonic mythology.) This hell was for both the good and the bad, the just and the unjust. It was the nether world, a region of darkness. In the later writings of the Old Testament, a clear distinction was made between where the good resided in hell versus where the bad were, the two being separated by an impassable abyss. The section for the unjust was named Gehenna, where the souls would suffer eternal torment by fire.
(Gehenna was the name of the valley at the boundary between the territories of Judah and Benjamin. Here was the shrine to the pagan god Molech, to whom human sacrifice was offered. The prophet Jeremiah cursed the place, denouncing it as a “Valley of Slaughter” stinking of death, decay, and corruption. (Cf. Jeremiah 19:6ff.)
Our Lord attested to this “land of the dead” understanding of hell: Recall the parable of Lazarus, the poor beggar, who sat at the gate of the rich man, traditionally called Dives (cf. Luke 16:19ff). Lazarus dies and is taken to the “land of the dead” (the original Greek text uses the word hades) and is comforted at the bosom of Abraham. Dives also dies and goes to the “land of the dead”; however, he finds eternal torment, being tortured in flames. Dives sees Lazarus and cries out to Abraham for relief. However, Abraham replies, “My child, remember that you were well off in your lifetime, while Lazarus was in misery. Now he has found consolation here, but you have found torment. And that is not all. Between you and us there is fixed a great abyss, so that those who might wish to cross from here to you cannot do so, nor can anyone cross from your side to us.”
Our Lord also emphasized the “eternal punishment” of hell: When Jesus spoke of the last judgment and separating the righteous from the evil, He said to the latter, “Out of my sight you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (cf. Matthew 25:31ff). Jesus also spoke of “risking the fires of Gehenna” for serious sins, like anger and hatred (Matthew 5:21ff), and adultery and impurity (Matthew 5:27ff).
Given this understanding, we believe that the sin of Adam and Eve had closed the Gates of Heaven. The holy souls awaited the Redeemer in the land of the dead, or hell. Our Lord offered the perfect sacrifice for all sin by dying on the cross, the redemptive act that touches all people of every time– past, present and future. He was then buried. During that time, He descended among the dead: His soul, separated from His body, joined the holy souls awaiting the Savior in the Land of the Dead. Remember St. Paul wrote, “‘He ascended’– what does this mean but that He had first descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who descended is the very one who ascended high above the heavens, that He might fill all men with His gifts” (Ephesians 4:9-10). His descent among the dead brought to completion the proclamation of the Gospel and liberated those holy souls who had long awaited their Redeemer. The Gates of Heaven were now open, and these holy souls entered everlasting happiness enjoying the beatific vision. Please note: Jesus did not deliver those souls damned to eternal punishment in hell nor did He destroy hell as such. The Catechism highlights the importance of this event: “This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption” (#634).
An “Ancient Homily” of the early Church for Holy Saturday captured this event: “The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began…. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives of Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve…. ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your Son…. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”