Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

Here's the full A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (about 1.3 MBytes; Word format; includes notes on some of its limits)

The Descent into Hell.

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

In spite of the glosses of preachers and divines, educated Christians recite with some hesitation the words of the Apostles' Creed: "He [Christ] descended into Hell." This intriguing clause of what is called the simplest expression of the Christian faith is based chiefly upon the alleged words of Peter in Acts (ii, 31), that "his soul was not left in hell" (Hades in the Greek text corresponding to the Hebrew Sheol), and upon the statement in 1 Peter iii, 18 if., that Christ after death preached to "the spirits in prison." The descent into Hades was accepted literally by the earliest Fathers of the Church (Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, etc.) and incorporated in the Creed. Later the same Latin word (infernum) was used to render both Hades and Gehenna, the latter being the abode of the demons. Catholics accordingly accept the gloss of Thomas Aquinas, that Christ did not go into the contaminating company of damned sinners, but into "that part of hell" (a sort of health-resort for exiles from heaven) where there is no fire or Devil, and where the company consists of innocent children and quite blameless souls who are excluded from heaven because they inherited the guilt of Adam's terrible sin, yet were never baptized (most of them having lived before the dogma of baptism was invented). Aquinas adds that Christ could not take them with him to heaven, so inexorable is the penalty of their inherited sin. This repulsive farrago of the Scholastic "genius" is still taught in all Catholic seminaries (Hurter's Theologia Dogmatica, II, 519-21); and Protestants, who are debarred from such consolation, regard the descent into hell as a mystery or reject it, though it has the same authority as the witnesses they quote for the Resurrection.
    It is one of the most remarkable examples of mental paralysis from the tyranny of Scriptural texts, for the moment common sense is consulted the obscurity disappears. The supposed prophecy of Jesus (Matt. xii, 40), that he would spend three days "in the heart of the earth," and the few other references, show that the early Christians, in borrowing the story of the Resurrection from contemporary cults (Attis, Adonis, Cybele, etc.), found it intimately connected with a descent into the underworld, and rather lamely took this over. A three days' interval between the commemoration of the death and that of the resurrection of the god was, we saw [see Attis], familiar. This was a necessary foreshortening in ritual of the third of the year (the winter-season), during which the vegetation-god had to remain below the earth. The adoption of this descent into the underworld between death and resurrection proves, if further proof were needed, that the founders or compilers of the Legend of Jesus took the material from the popular cults of their time. It shows also that they were men of poor intelligence, something like the "apostles" of the Gospels, for the story as it was told about Attis, Osiris, Persephone, etc., was quite logical in a primitive way, but it was altogether incongruous when applied to Jesus. To the Christian, or the Jew who was passing into that phase, the underworld was a place of sin and torment; nor had Attis and Persephone been regarded by their worshippers as beings compacted of spirit and body, to say nothing of divine and human natures. It affords a useful insight into the confused making of the new religion, and we hardly wonder that it was a stumbling-block to the educated Greeks and Romans.


Back to Joseph McCabe extracts

Home Page

Scanning, HTML Rae West. First upload 98-06-15