The primary passage used to substantiate Jesus’ journey into the underworld is found in The First Epistle of Peter 3:19-20: “In which he [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.” Catholic scholars point to Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians 4:9 for further support of this contention: “‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?”
The Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds, the former dating conservatively to the 2nd century and the latter to the 5th, both contain references that state that Christ “[d]escended to the dead” (Lat. descendit ad inferos). Despite scant biblical support, these creeds include references to Christ’s descent into the underworld reflecting a deeper theological significance. The Epistle to the Hebrews 2:14 contains an explanation for this inclusion: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil…” In short, Jesus’ travel to the underworld, Hades, or Hell has a significant soteriological significance. It explains Christ’s conquest over Satan and his chief power, death and torment in the afterlife.
“The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died…Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple—where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis…Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.”