The Harrowing of Hell

The Harrowing of Hell

Two of my grandsons were discussing the meaning of Easter. Their conversation went something like this. George (age 5): ‘Luke, do you know that Easter time is when Jesus died on the cross?’ Luke (age 3)  ‘Yeah … then he fell down a big hole!’ Now in some ways that is not a bad answer. What are we to make of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Day? The Western Church has a lot to say about the events of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday … but little is said of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Day. This Saturday seems a puzzle to many Christians.

Interestingly, Orthodox Easter icons do not portray the empty tomb which is the typical representation in Western Christianity. Rather, the Easter icons of the Orthodox Church depict what is known as ‘the harrowing of hell’. The harrowing of hell refers to the events between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The word ‘harrowing’ stems from the word ‘harry’ – a military term meaning ‘to make predatory raids or incursions’ into enemy territory, often with the purpose of rescuing people who were trapped or imprisoned. Specifically, the early church believed that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. Jesus breaks down the doors of hell and leads the souls of the lost into heaven.

This is an obscure teaching in the Western Church, but the Bible hints at these events. For example, the Apostle Peter tells us, in his First Letter, that ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago’ (1 Peter 3.18-20a). And later on, in the same Letter, he tells us ‘For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit’ (1 Peter 4.6). The Apostle Paul also tells us, in his Letter to the Ephesians, ‘This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe)’ (Ephesians 4:8-10). This belief that Christ descended into hell is also captured in Peter’s Pentecost sermon where Peter reminds his hearers that God could ‘not abandon [his Messiah] to the realm of the dead’ (Acts 2:27,31).

Consequently, the early Apostle’s Creed had the, eventually controversial, mention of the descent into hell:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
born of the Virgin Mary.
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come again to judge the living and the dead …

Early church fathers like Origen (184-254), Tertullian (160-225), and Hippolytus (170-235) expanded upon this cryptic phrase and argued that Christ, after dying, went down to hell and freed all those righteous men and women who lived before his ministry. Their rationale was simple: people must believe in Jesus to gain salvation,  but some way had to be found to save all those good Hebrew biblical types such as Adam, Isaiah, Joseph, David, etc. who didn’t have the opportunity to get in on this new grace. Interestingly however, the Nicene Creed (325 AD) which followed the earlier version of the Apostle’s Creed, removed the mention of the decent into hell. Nevertheless, for fifteen hundred years the majority of Christians, it appears, believed in the harrowing of hell.

The phrase ‘descended into hell’ is very misleading. The idea inherent in the New Testament is not that Jesus descended into hell but rather that he descended into Hades. Hell is the place primarily ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41) but is also generally used in Scripture as a place of future punishment for all those who conclusively reject the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hades, however, particularly in Jewish thought at the time of Christ, was seen as an intermediate state – a twilight shadow-land – into which the spirits of all men and women alike went immediately after death. In later thought, there emerged the idea of divisions or compartments in this shadow-land. For the righteous dead this intermediate state was a pleasant experience – resting in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22-23), or relaxing in ‘Paradise’, the place of blessedness promised to the repentant thief (Luke 23:43) drawn from the Persian word describing a beautiful garden in the Palace of a Great King where guests would be invited to wait before entering the immediate presence of the Great King himself. For the unrighteous dead this intermediate state was a kind of prison-house in which they were held until the Day of Judgment and the final punishment (Isaiah 24:21,22; 2 Peter 2:4-6). So then, in this whole matter therefore, we must think not in terms of hell (as we understand the word) but in terms of Christ going into the twilight shadow-land of the dead that first Holy Saturday.

What was Christ’s purpose in descending into Hades on that first Saturday after Good Friday? For Peter it was primarily to ‘preach to the imprisoned spirits’ whose abode was in Hades (1 Peter 3:19), to ‘preach the Gospel even to those who were already dead’ (1 Peter 4:6). For Paul it was so that Jesus might ‘capture captivity itself’ (Ephesians 4:8), that is, set free those imprisoned in this twilight shadow-land and thus enable them to ascend with him to Glory! Some commentators understand this as Jesus ‘proclaiming his victory’ over Satan, sin and death for everyone, thus providing universal salvation for all! Others understand this as Jesus ‘preaching the Gospel’ to those imprisoned in Hades thus offering those, who have died without responding positively to the Gospel, a second chance. Others understand this in terms of Jesus ‘proclaiming his victory’ in the sense of liberating the ‘righteous dead’ alone, and leading them out of Hades and into Heaven! For Augustine of Hippo (354-430) the passages in 1 Peter are to be understood spiritually rather than literally – Christ preaching the Gospel to those who are ‘spiritually dead’ throughout the generations, whilst for John Calvin (in the 16th century) the ‘descent into hell’ meant that during the three hours on the cross, Christ’s soul descended into the hell of damnation, and was subjected to torments there from the wrath of God, the fear of eternal damnation, and the devil’s power.

Personally speaking, I would love to believe that those who have neglected or rejected Jesus Christ in this life have a second chance to put that right beyond the grave. I suspect, however, that even if that were possible there would still be those who would choose to spend eternity separated from God rather than in his presence. As the great Christian apologist C S Lewis has pointed out, ‘The gates of hell are barred from the inside, not from the outside!’. Even more so, I would love to believe that the grace of God extends much further than even the best of us have dreamed possible, and that in the end everyone will be saved. I find no conclusive evidence for either of these aspects in Scripture, however, and therefore even though I may hope for them I cannot preach them. I can only urge men and women everywhere to respond to the Gospel invitation and commit their lives to Christ right here, right now, and seek to spend the rest of their lives in serving Christ and our generation. As Paul exhorts us, ‘Now is the accepted time! Now is the day of salvation!’ (2 Corinthians 6:2).

What we can, and should, take with us from the events of that first Holy Saturday, however, is an overwhelming sense of the power and extent of the victory Jesus has won for us through his death on the Cross. The fact that he descended to the depths of human hell and proclaimed the Good News to those, who in our eyes at least, were ‘beyond redemption’ is absolutely mind-blowing! I recall many years ago seeing Salvation Army Commissioner, Catherine Bramwell-Booth being interviewed by Michael Parkinson on TV. I think she was 96 years old at the time. ‘What if when you die you find yourself in hell and not in heaven?’ Parkinson asked her. ‘Why, Mr Parkinson,’ replied Catherine Bramwell-Booth, ‘I would simply preach Jesus … and then it wouldn’t be hell any more, would it!’

In Western churches the empty tomb is what you will see depicted on Easter Sunday. But Orthodox services recreate the harrowing of hell. The priest exits the church with a cross. The sanctuary is immersed in darkness and the doors are closed. The priest then knocks on the door and proclaims, ‘Open the doors to the Lord of the powers, the King of glory!’ Inside the church the people make a great noise of rattling chains which conveys the resistance of hell to the coming of Christ. Eventually, the doors are opened up, the cross enters, and the church is lit with brightly burning candles and filled with incense. This Orthodox focus on the harrowing of hell helps fill in what is often left out of the Western focus on the empty tomb. I have to say I wish that some of our Western services contained some of this vibrant symbolism depicting the power and extent of the victory Jesus has won for us!

Up from the grave he arose;
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
He arose a victor from the dark domain,
And he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

~ Robert Lowry (1826-99)

Jim Binney

3 comments on “THE HARROWING OF HELL (Holy Saturday)

  1. Thanks for sharing this with me.


  2. Interesting, such a lot of differing beliefs. I have to say that I have come to believe, as I think I always have done or known, that God is in us, around us, everywhere, and that He and Jesus love us unconditionally and that, that love is all encompassing and has no judgement, no punishment. I think when we die we return to Him.


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