• Christ's Descent into Hell
  • Dracula Meets the Pope
  • Theology & Philosophy
In contrast to the widespread contemporary amnesia on this topic, a particular doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell (or “to the dead”) developed as universal in the early Church: After Christ’s death in the flesh on the cross, the Word of God descended in His human soul to the holy men and women who had died before Him, bringing them the good news of the accomplishment of their redemption and conferring on them the glory of heaven. He did not suffer in His descent, nor did He convert or liberate the damned.

Besides being the patrimony of all Christians, this doctrine remains identifiably Catholic, for the Protestant Reformers defined their own theologies of Christ’s descent over against this one precisely as Catholic. Among Catholics, it is defended up until the generation of theologians writing primarily after World War II, when many demonstrated unfamiliarity with their own faith tradition in attempts to come up with a doctrine almost from scratch, as though the Church had professed her faith for two millennia without knowing what she meant. To the best of my knowledge, Orthodox theologians have not suffered from the same confusion. Historians of ideas are likewise clear on the catholicity (in both senses) of the ancient doctrine.

I first began working on this topic during my studies for a licentiate in theology (a degree in the pontifical educational system comparable to something between a master’s and a doctorate in the American.) And here I offer a bit of personal history, not for curiosity’s sake, but because it is directly relevant to the evaluation of my work: My theological formation was founded upon the study of primary sources in the Christian tradition from apostolic times to the 20th century. The authors who received the most emphasis were the Fathers (both Eastern and Western), St. Thomas Aquinas, and—because the faculty largely admired his work—Hans Urs von Balthasar. Note that I was introduced to Balthasar and studied him in a context most favorable toward him.

In the course of reading him on other subjects, I was puzzled by what he meant in some brief allusions he made to Christ’s descent into hell. I consequently proposed investigating his descensus theology for my thesis. At that point and despite having attended Catholic schools all my life, I myself could not have told you what the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s descent was, for the gap in the theologians’ familiarity was mirrored by a gap in catechesis and preaching. So it seemed a good idea to begin my study of Balthasar by first researching the doctrine of the tradition in which he stood. Taking him at his word, as I did, that he was speaking out of that tradition, I figured I could not understand or evaluate him well without knowing it myself. The conclusion of my thesis thus was not foregone; my research was a real investigation. In that sense, I did not have a ‘thesis’ I set out to argue.

To my surprise, it turned out that there are some very serious discrepancies between Balthasar’s account and the historical Catholic expressions of the doctrine. Balthasar holds that Christ’s suffering not only continues after His crucifixion, but intensifies as He suffers the eternal punishment that all mankind, taken cumulatively, would have undergone without a Redeemer. Indeed, He suffers worse: All the world’s sins must be brought “inside” the Trinitarian relations in order to be “consumed” there by the divine love (the terms here are Balthasar’s). This means that the Son, having taken all sins upon and into Himself, is, in His filial relation with the Father, the object of the divine wrath against sin.

I might simply have appealed to the authority of the traditional doctrine as such to close my investigation. That kind of resolution was not wholly satisfactory to me, however; although legitimate, it appeared rather like a deus ex machina. Moreover, as a general methodology, it might not prove a resolution at all in a dispute between two doctrines, both of which invoke various kinds of theological authority. Thus I determined to take another doctrine, held with certainty to be true, as a criterion for judgement; I choose Christology. The ‘true’ doctrine of the descent, whichever it was, should be compatible with it, while any other would generate inconsistencies or contradictions—hence, the corollary that changing one’s doctrine of the descent will change one’s doctrine of Christ.

I developed and expanded the exposition and comparison in my doctoral dissertation, a revised version of which was published by Eerdmans as Light in Darkness. It attracted, shall we say, some attention.

To date, most of my publications and presentations have been related to the topic of Christ’s descent (See “Works” tab for additional information, including links to some texts):


  • The Pope, the Cardinal, and the Jesuit: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on Christ’s Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, forthcoming)
  • Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007).
  • “Response to Webster and Lauber,” Response to Karl Barth Society Panel, Scottish Journal of Theology, 62 (May 2009) 2: 211-216.
  • “Development of Doctrine, or Denial? Balthasar’s Holy Saturday and Newman’s Essay,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 11 (April 2009) 2: 129-45.
  • “The Passion and Triumph of Eternal Spring,” Gonzaga Witness (April/May, 2007): 16-17.
  • “Responses to ‘Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy,’” First Things (March, 2007): 12-14.
  • “More on Balthasar Hell, and Heresy,” First Things (January, 2007): 16-18.
  • “Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange,” First Things (December, 2006): 25-29.
  • “Yes, Christ Descended into Hell—and That is Cause for Joy and Hope,” Inland Register, April 27, 2006, p. 17.

Public Lectures

  • “Balthasar’s Christology: Advance in Orthodoxy or Return of Heresy?” American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, San Francisco, California, Nov. 19, 2011
  • Invited Templeton Lectures, May, 2011:
    • “Christ’s Victory over Sin and Death: Interpreting the Icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell,” University of Oxford (Blackfriars)
    • “Von Balthasar against the Tradition: Variant Views of Christ’s Descent into Hell,” University of Oxford (Blackfriars)
    • “The Pope, the Cardinal, and the Jesuit: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on Christ’s Descent into Hell,” Heythrop College
    • “The Importance of A Robust Theology of Christ’s Descent into Hell,” King’s College (London), University of Durham, University of Aberdeen, University of Cambridge, and University of Nottingham
  • “Theology and Epistemology in Christ’s Descent into Hell,” Gonzaga University Faith and Reason Institute, Mar. 22, 2010
  • “Christ’s Descent into Hell: The Paschal Significance of Holy Saturday,” St. Francis de Sales Catholic Parish, Holland, Michigan, Mar. 25, 2009
  • Response to panel on my book, Light in Darkness, Karl Barth Society Annual Meeting, San Diego, California, Nov. 17, 2007
  • “Resurrection and Ascension: The Mystery of Christian Life,” Seminary Formation Conference, Bishop White Seminary, Spokane, Washington, April 12, 2007
  • “Why Christ’s Descent into Hell Matters to Christians: A Lenten Reflection,” St. Dominic’s Parish, San Francisco, California, March 21, 2007
  • “Christ’s Descent into Hell and the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” The Dumb Ox Theological Forum, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, California, March 20, 2007
  • “The Paschal Mystery,” Seminary Formation Conference, Bishop White Seminary, Spokane, Washington, April 20, 2006
“You know you’re really a success when someone spoofs you.” The great classics of horror fiction (Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among others) are arguably among the most spoofed works ever. What is so compelling about them?

Using these texts, as well as lesser-known but no less powerful ones, my work in this area investigates what successful classic horror tells us about the human person. Horror and the human. Monsters and mankind. They seem such opposites. But are they? Or do the deliberate distortions of horror reflect our understanding of humanity, like the ‘funny mirrors’ in a haunted house? If so, what significance does classic horror fiction, which possesses such lasting popularity, hold for us today? And what does the Pope have to do with Dracula?!

Manuscript preparation is in progress in this area. My teaching portfolio includes a course on this topic. I also have given presentations on it:

  • “Monster and Man: Are Morals Made Manifest in Matter?” Keynote Address for Whitworth University and Gonzaga University Faith, Film, and Philosophy Series, Oct. 7, 2010; Invited Templeton Lecture for Roehampton University and St. Mary’s University College, May, 2011
  • “Dracula Meets the Pope: Classic Horror Fiction and a Catholic Christian View of the Human Person,” St. Francis de Sales Catholic Parish, Oct. 28, 2009
  • “Just in Time for Halloween: Catholic Philosophy of Human Nature and Classic Horror Fiction,” Diocese of Spokane’s Theology on Tap Program, October 25, 2005
Catholic doctrine affirms at the same time the possibility (and actuality) of positive achievements by the human mind and its fallibility. Catholic theology thus necessarily has a high regard for philosophy and an awareness of its limitations. My work is, I hope, marked by this balance.

Specific engagements related to this topic include the following public lectures:

  • “When Witnesses Conflict: One God of Abraham but Three Abrahamic Religions?” Invited Templeton Lecture, University of Bristol, May, 2011
  • “Why Faith and Philosophy Need Each Other,” Hope College Religion Department Searching the Sacred Series, Nov. 18, 2010
  • “Why Philosophy and Theology Need Each Other,” Gonzaga University Socratic Club, Mar. 23, 2010
  • “Theology and Epistemology in Christ’s Descent into Hell,” Gonzaga University Faith and Reason Institute, Mar. 22, 2010
  • “Does ‘One God’ Mean One God? Whether the Three Monotheistic Religions Agree on God,” American Academy of Religion, Pacific Northwest Region Annual Meeting, Spokane, Washington, May 5, 2006

This book review is also relevant:

  • Review of: Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak, Philosophy Between Faith and Theology: Addresses to Catholic Intellectuals in: Philosophy in Review (August, 2006): 281-283.

Additional manuscript preparation is in progress in this area.