“On Good Friday our gaze remains fixed on the crucified Christ, but Holy Saturday is the day of the ‘death of God,’ the day that expresses the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakes, no longer speaks, so that one no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him. ‘God is dead and we have killed him.’ This saying of Nietzsches’s belongs linguistically to the tradition of Christian Passiontide piety; it expresses the content of Holy Saturday, ‘descended into hell.’
This article of the Creed always reminds me of two scenes in the Bible. The first is that cruel story in the Old Testament in which Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to implore their God to give them fire for their sacrifice. They do so, and naturally nothing happens. He ridicules them, just as the ‘enlightened rationalist’ ridicules the pious person and finds him laughable when nothing happens in response to his prayers. Elijah calls out to the priests that perhaps they had not prayed loud enough: ‘Cry aloud, for he [Baal] is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’ (1 Kings 18:27). When one reads today this mockery of the devotees of Baal, one can begin to feel uncomfortable; one can get the feeling that we have now arrived in that situation and that mockery must now fall on us. No calling seems to be able to awaken God. The rationalist seems entitled to say to us, ‘Pray louder, perhaps your God will then wake up.’ ‘Descended into hell’; how true this is of our time, the descent of God into muteness, into the dark silence of the absent.
But alongside the story of Elijah and its New Testament analogue, the story of the Lord sleeping in the midst of the storm on the lake (Mk 4:35-41), we must put the Emmaus story (Lk 24:13-35). The disturbed disciples are talking of the death of their hope. To them, something like the death of God has happened: the point at which God finally seemed to have spoken has disappeared. The One sent by God is dead, and so there is a complete void. Nothing replies any more. But while they are there speaking of the death of their hope and can no longer see God, they do not notice that this very hope stands alive in their midst; that ‘God’, or rather the image they had formed of his promise, had to die so that he could live on a larger scale. The image they had formed of God, and into which they sought to compress him, had to be destroyed, so that over the ruins of the demolished house, as it were, they could see the sky again and him who remains the infinitely greater.
….The article about the Lord’s descent into hell reminds us that not only God’s speech but also his silence is part of the Christian revelation. God is not only the comprehensible word that comes to us; he is also the silent, inaccessible, uncomprehended, and incomprehensible ground that eludes us. To be sure, in Christianity there is a primacy of the logos, of the word, over silence; God has spoken. God is word. But this does not entitle us to forget the truth of God’s abiding concealment. Only when we have experienced him as silence may we hope to hear his speech, too, which proceeds in silence. Christology reaches out beyond the Cross, the moment when the divine love is tangible, into the death, the silence and the eclipse of God. Can we wonder that the Church and the life of the individual are led again and again into this hour of silence, into the forgotten and almost discarded article, ‘Descended into hell’?
…If there were such a thing as a loneliness, that could no longer be penetrated and transformed by the word of another; if a state of abandonment were to arise that was so deep that no ‘You’ could reach into it any more, then we should have real, total loneliness and dreadfulness, what theology calls ‘hell.’ We can now define exactly what this word means: it denotes a loneliness that the word love can no longer penetrate and that therefore indicates the expose nature of existence in itself. In this connection who can fail to remember that writers and philosophers of our time take the view that basically all encounters between human beings remain superficial, that no man has access to the real depths of another? According to this view, no one can really penetrate into the innermost being of someone else; every encounter, beautiful as it may seem, basically only dulls the incurable wound of loneliness. This hell, despair, would dwell at the very bottom of our existence, in the shape of that loneliness which is as inescapable as it is dreadful.
…In truth—one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone—the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is—hell.
This brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that I his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there he is. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it. Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bile calls it, the second death (Rev 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. From this angle, I think, one can understand the images—which at first sight looks so mythological—of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates. The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened and the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt 27:52). The door of death stands open since life—love—has dwelt in death.”
-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity