My understanding of Catholic teaching is that after the original sin, man was not only kicked out of paradise, but heaven was closed to him so that the after death, the souls of the just were in limbo awaiting liberation by Christ.

On Good Friday, Jesus promises the good thief that he will be with him that day in Paradise1.

In the Apostles' Creed, it is recited in the 4th thru 6th articles:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.

He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Here is my question:

On Good Friday, did Jesus descend into hell (limbo), free the just souls who went before him, who then accompanied him with great joy into heaven?

Or did he free them, place them into paradise - the one Adam forfeited for him and us - rise on Easter Sunday, and then conduct the souls into heaven when he ascended on ascension Thursday? Or was it at some other time?

According to Catholicism, when exactly were the souls of those who died before Christ conducted to heaven?

1. Cf. Luke 23:43 (RSVCE).

2 Answers 2


The souls of those who died before Christ (who were in the Limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum) or "Bosom of Abraham") were conducted to heaven at Christ's Ascension.

Addressing the question of "Whether Christ's Ascension is the cause of our salvation?," St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

…He took to heaven the souls of the saints delivered from hell, according to Ps. 67:19 (Cf. Eph. 4:8*): "Ascending on high, He led captivity captive," because He took with Him to heaven those who had been held captives by the devil—to heaven, as to a place strange to human nature, captives in deed of a happy taking, since they were acquired by His victory.

*["For the which he saith, Ascending on high, he led captivity captive: he gave gifts to men."]

See also "Does the Catholic Church teach that some who died before Christ are still in Limbo? Why?."

  • Nice! What do we know between the descent into hell and the ascension? Where were those souls?
    – user13992
    Jan 19, 2015 at 3:50
  • 1
    @FMS: That's roughly 40 days. I assume they were with Him. Where else would they be?
    – Geremia
    Jan 19, 2015 at 6:42
  • My thinking as well, but where? Augment your comment above in an answer.
    – user13992
    Jan 19, 2015 at 6:44

Catholic doctrine on this subject was stated authoritatively by Pope Benedict XII in his 1336 Apostolic Constitution "Benedictus Deus" [1] [2]:

By this Constitution which is to remain in force for ever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following: [...]

the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ [...]

all these souls, immediately (mox) after death and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above, since the ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ into heaven, already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence.

IMV, the way to make the two different "since" clauses mutually consistent is to hold that "the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ"

  • were taken to heaven, i.e. the Beatific Vision, by Jesus Himself after his death, i.e. while He was in a state of disembodied soul between his death and resurrection, and

  • were joined in heaven by the bodily glorified Jesus after his ascension.

[1] http://www.papalencyclicals.net/ben12/b12bdeus.htm

[2] http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/B12BDEUS.HTM

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