On the Square - Why Von Balthasar Was Wrong About Holy Saturday by Stephen H. Webb
Hans Urs von Balthasar is justly famous for his creative reflections on Holy Saturday. The thesis of his book, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, is that Jesus Christ suffers not only a physical death on the cross but a spiritual death in hell. Von Balthasar’s speculations are inspired by the creedal phrase descendit ad inferna as well as 1 Peter 3:19, which says that Christ, after he was put to death, preached to the spirits in prison. Von Balthasar’s critics typically argue that he went too far in putting Christ in the actual precincts of hell. My criticism with Von Balthasar has nothing to do with the location of Christ’s descent but everything to do with what Jesus did when he got there. Simply put, did he suffer or did he preach?
Those who reject Von Balthasar’s thesis argue that Christ did not “go all the way.” Instead of descending to hell, he stopped short at a place called “the limbo of the fathers,” where Abraham, Moses, and various Old Testament prophets resided at a safe distance from the burning flames. God kept these men in this special place because they were righteous and faithful, lacking only an affirmation of Jesus to be permitted entry into heaven. Christ woke them up, introduced himself, and off they went—a process that was, evidently, quick and easy, since they were primed and ready to go.
Von Balthasar’s version of this event certainly makes for better drama. Rather than a quick stop to save those whom God had no plans to abandon anyway, Christ experiences the complete package of death, which includes not just dying but also being dead. By depicting Holy Saturday as the furthest reach of Christ’s suffering on behalf of sinners, Von Balthasar makes it the climax of the cross. The cross, we could say, casts its shadow over Jesus’ death, so that even while his body is in repose his soul suffers inconceivable torment...