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Christ’s Harrowing of Hell

By Hannah Bowman

Holy Saturday fulfills a curious double role in the Christian calendar. As the day on which “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands,” it is one of waiting and silence, yet after sunset it also holds the celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter, the most intense liturgical celebration of the resurrection and the accompanying liberation from sin and death of all the baptized.

These seemingly opposed symbols reflect two sides of the same spiritual reality: Christ’s descent into hell, the land of the dead. The central moment of the Paschal Mystery is also its most mysterious: Christ’s visit to the damned, in silent solidarity and illuminating liberation. St. Paul asks: “When it says ‘he ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?”

The context of this reference is that when Christ “ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people” (Eph. 4:8) — or as the New International Version puts it, “he took many captives.” The New Testament references to the descent into hell are filled out by the claim that Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey” (1 Pet. 3:19-20). Despite scarce New Testament evidence, the doctrine of the descent into hell is attested in the Apostles’ Creed. And it was long prevalent in popular piety as an image of liberation in the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus, as well as the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood,” which, in line with the NIV translation of Ephesians 4:8, describes Christ bringing a “vast host of souls” from hell into God’s kingdom (line 152).

Patristic and medieval piety emphasizes the descent into hell as the first victory of the resurrection. Often called the “harrowing of hell” in the Middle Ages — a word derived from the Old English hergian, meaning “to ravage, seize, or plunder” — the emphasis in the descent is on Christ’s victory over the powers of sin and death, and his freeing of the saints imprisoned among the damned. Modern scholars such as Lee Griffith emphasize Christ’s victory over what Griffith identifies as “the powers of slavery and imprisonment” in the claim of Ephesians 4:8 that Christ “captured captivity” (The Fall of the Prison, p. 110).

For us, these “first fruits” of the resurrection are symbolized in our Vigil liturgy. In the Exsultet, sung in the darkness of the Vigil, we praise the Paschal candle: “May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning—he who gives his light to all creation” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 287). Compare this to the first sign of Christ’s descent into hell in the Gospel of Nicodemus: “In the blackness of darkness, on a sudden there appeared the color of the sun like gold, and a substantial purple-colored light enlightening the place” (13:3; this and subsequent quotes are from the translation in the 1979 edition of The Lost Books of the Bible [Bell Publishing]).

Then as we renew our baptismal vows in the Vigil liturgy, we are reminded that “through the Paschal mystery … we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life” (BCP, p. 292). This is, surely, the liturgical enactment of the salvation from and through death and hell described this way in the Gospel of Nicodemus: “Then the Lord stretching forth his hand, made the sign of the cross upon Adam, and upon all his saints. And taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him” (19:11-12). Jesus’ descent into hell is our liberation to new life.

But there is another, darker side to the descent into hell. The Reformers, especially John Calvin, identified the descent into hell with Jesus’ abandonment by God on the cross at his death. In recent decades, this emphasis has been taken up by two major interpreters of the cross, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jürgen Moltmann.

Moltmann emphasizes Christ’s solidarity with the dead and damned in his descent into hell, seeing it not only as the experience of death and separation but as a representative sharing in God’s judgment of the condemned: “Christ has vicariously anticipated the final judgment of God for all the Godless and the unjust” (The Way of Jesus Christ, p. 244). This is, again, a profound experience of condemnation on Christ’s part, precisely what we would describe as the torments of hell: “The Father … sends his Son through all the abysses and hells of Godforsakenness, of the divine curse and final judgment” (The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, p. 82).

Von Balthasar’s treatment of the descent into hell in Mysterium Paschale is controversial for his emphasis that Christ’s descent into hell was not one of victory but was rather his real and unequivocal death. He describes the liturgical silence of Holy Saturday as our abandonment also:

If without the Son no one can see the Father (John 1:18) nor anyone come to the Father (John 14:6), and if, without him, the Father is revealed to nobody (Matthew 11:27), then when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him, or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible. (Mysterium Paschale, p. 49)

In our liturgy, the silent waiting of Holy Saturday — the day when we are without access to God — brings us all the way into the darkness that precedes the Easter Vigil — the darkness broken by the “color of the sun like gold” as Jesus breaks the door down and breaks those condemned out of hell.

In this moment of illumination, we understand the truth about God: when “the Father and Son are most deeply separated in forsakenness” — at the Cross and, as its fulfillment, the descent —“they are most inwardly one in their surrender” (Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 244). We understand the truth about the world: no one is disposable and no one sitting in darkness can be left without the presence of God who fills even hell in the person of Christ. We understand the truth about hell: that, in the words of John Chrysostom, “Hell took a body and discovered God” to its eternal destruction.

The paradox of the Paschal Mystery is that both the silent suffering and the first celebration of Easter are the truth of Holy Saturday. Christ is dead in complete solidarity with the dead, suffering the judgment of God in complete solidarity with the damned, and by doing so he destroys death, damnation, and hell. As John Chrysostom preached:

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when he descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of his flesh.

On Holy Saturday, we understand that when we are farthest from God, we are closest to him. Seeing Christ in solidarity with those who feel abandoned by God, we know that his victory has extended — is extending — to every depth.

And we find that the two seemingly disparate roles of Holy Saturday are one: it is the day when we remember Christ in hell, and so when we look at hell, we see only Christ. This is its desolation, but also its victory. This is the hymn we sing at the Commendation in the Burial of the Dead (BCP, p. 499). “All of us” — even God, in Christ — “go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song.” Even looking upon the death of God our song is the first song of Easter: “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

Hannah Bowman works as a literary agent for Liza Dawson Associates and is a laywoman in the Diocese of Los Angeles. The founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, she volunteers as a chaplain in the L.A. County jails with Prism Restorative Justice.


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