Harrowing of Hell

From Academic Kids

Missing image
The Harrowing of Hell, as depicted in the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript.

The Harrowing of Hell is the traditional English name in Christian theology for an event affirmed in the Apostles Creed, which says Jesus "descended into Hell" (or Hades).


In the creeds

Sometimes this is translated as "descended to the dead." The original Latin wording is descendit ad inferos, and in Greek it is κατελθοντα εις τα κατωτατα, ("katelthonta eis ta katôtata"). The Greek κατωτατα and the Latin inferos might best be translated in English as underworld or netherworld. The "harrowing" in this context first appears in English in homilies of Aelfric, ca. AD 1000 but the concept developed earlier. The term "Harrowing of Hell" usually refers not merely to the idea that Christ descended into Hell, as in the Creed, but the rich mythology that developed later, asserting that he triumphed over inferos, releasing Hell's captives, particularly Adam, Eve, and the righteous men and women whose stories are recorded in the Septuagint.

Biblical sources

Among Christians, descendit ad inferos is perhaps the most controversial part of the Apostles Creed; some believers are disturbed by the doctrine's assertion that when he died, Jesus went to Hell. In the New Testament, two passages of 1 Peter alone affirm the doctrine, which is otherwise unparalleled: 1 Peter 3:19-20 says that Jesus "went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah..." (New Revised Standard Version NRSV). (In the original Greek: "εν ω και τοις εν φυλακη πνευμασιν πορευθεις εκηρυξεν απειθησασιν ποτε οτε απεξεδεχετο η του θεου μακροθυμια εν ημεραις Nωε. . . ") Similarly 1 Peter 4:6 says that the gospel was "proclaimed even to the dead..." (NRSV). ("εις τουτο γαρ και νεκροις ευηγγελισθη. . . ") A symptom of how few clear parallels can be found, 2 Corinthians 2:14 has been interpreted to include the harrowing of Hell: "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him" (NRSV). ("τω δε θεω χαρις τω παντοτε θριαμβευοντι ημας εν τω Xριστω και την οσμην της γνωσεως αυτου φανερουντι δι ημων εν παντι τοπω.") By insisting that "every place" would have to include Hell, a parallel is affirmed. Yet no scholiast has affirmed that Christ preached at the bottom of the sea, thus the extension of "every place" is selective.

The Harrowing of Hell has also been seen in Ephesians 4:8-10, which, referencing Psalm 68:18, says:

Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men." (In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) (ESV)
διο λεγει αναβας εις υψος ηχμαλωτευσεν αιχμαλωσιαν και εδωκεν δοματα τοις ανθρωποις: το δε ανεβη τι εστιν ει μη οτι και κατεβη εις τα κατωτερα μερη της γης? O καταβας αυτος εστιν και ο αναβας υπερανω παντων των ουρανων ινα πληρωση τα παντα.

Other readers view the "descent into the lower parts of the Earth" in this passage as referring to the Incarnation, and not necessarily to any descent into the underworld.

Apocryphal books embellish the story

Nevertheless, the Harrowing of Hell was taught by theologians of the early church. St Melito of Sardis (died ca 180) and St Ambrose (died 397) both wrote of the Harrowing of Hell, and yet, significantly, no mention of Christ's descending into Hell was incorporated into the Nicene Creed in 325. The phrase descendit ad inferos from the Apostles' Creed was omitted. The Gospel of Matthew relates that immediately after Christ died, the earth shook, the veil in the Temple was torn in two, and many people rose from the dead and walked about in Jerusalem testifying. According to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, the Harrowing of Hell was foreshadowed by Christ's raising of Lazarus from the dead less than a week before his own crucifixion. The hymns proper to the weekend suggest that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in Hell by prophesying to those held there that Christ would soon release them, just as he prepared the way for Jesus on earth.

In the Acts of Pilate usually incorporated with the widely-read Gospel of Nicodemus, built around an original that might have been as old as the 3rd century A.D. with many improvements and embroidered interpolations, chapters 17 to 27 are called the Decensus Christi ad Inferos. They contain a dramatic dialogue between Hades and prince Satan, and the entry of the King of Glory, imagined as from within Tartarus (see link below). The richest, most circumstantial accounts of the Harrowing of Hell are found in medieval dramatic literature: the four great cycles of English mystery plays each devote a separate scene to depict it. The subject is found also in the Cornish mystery plays. These medieval versions of the story, do not derive from the bare suggestion made in the Epistle ascribed to Peter, but come from the Gospel of Nicodemus.

Missing image
Christ leads the patriarchs from Hell to Paradise, by Bartolomeo Bertejo, Spanish, ca 1480: Methusaleh, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and Adam and Eve lead the procession

Conceptions of the afterlife

What was the early 2nd-century conception of the afterlife, when 1 Peter was likely composed, that Jesus of Nazareth should be said to descend into the Underworld and return? The Jewish view differed from the Hellenistic Greek view. The Old Testament affirms that Job and other righteous men went to Sheol when they died, as did David and the other psalmists. No Hebrew figure ever descended into Sheol and returned, although an apparition of the recently deceased Samuel briefly appeared to Saul when summoned by the witch of Endor. Parts of the New Testament can be read as drawing a distinction between Sheol, the common destination of the dead in Judaism, and Gehenna, the lake of eternal fire where the evil dead are tormented; English accounts are not always mindful of this distinction, and the two destinations may both be rendered Hell.

The Hellenistic views of heroic descent into the Underworld and successful return follow traditions that are far older than the mystery religions popular at the time of Christ. What little we know of the worship in mystery religions such as the Eleusinian Mysteries and Mithraism suggests that a ritual death and rebirth of the initiate was an important part of their liturgy. The ancient homily on The Lord's Descent into Hell may mirror these traditions by referring to baptism as a symbolic death and rebirth. (Cf. Colossians 2:9-15) Or, these traditions of mithraism may be drawn from early Christian homilies.

Purpose of the doctrine

What did the Harrowing of Hell offer the believing Christian? The doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell, as it was developed, explained how those righteous people who lived before the Crucifixion were redeemed. Ambrose explains that the argument that holds that Christ could not have suffered in Hell also implies that Christ could not have suffered on the Cross. For St John Chrysostom, the harrowing of Hell was a paradox that was an essential part of the Christian mystery of faith: "Hell took a body, and discovered God; it took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see." (from John Chrysostom's Paschal homily) Much later, St Thomas Aquinas explained the doctrine, saying that "when Christ descended into hell, by the power of his Passion he delivered the saints from this penalty whereby they were excluded from the life of glory...."

Theological objections are sometimes based on the grounds that for Christ to have descended into Hell, he would have to have borne God's curse. John Calvin, replying to this objection, observed that those who hold this objection "have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God's judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God." The theologian's conclusion therefore is that Christ's descent into Hell was necessary for Christians' atonement, because Christ did in fact endure the penalty for the sins of the redeemed.

There is an ancient homily on the subject, of unknown authorship, usually entitled The Lord's Descent into Hell that is the second reading at Lauds on Holy Saturday in the Roman Catholic Church. John Chrysostom's homily also addresses the Harrowing of Hell, and is typically read as the chief homily at Pascha, the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter. In the Orthodox liturgical practice, the chief "liturgical color" goes from black on Good Friday to white on Holy Saturday in celebration of the harrowing of Hell then taking place, and in anticipation of Christ's imminent resurrection.

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