The Harrowing of Hell
The Apostles Creed states in the 4th line that Christ:
“Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:”
He descended into hell.
Growing up in a non-liturgical setting, I was not aware of the Apostles Creed, I did not read or recite it until later into adulthood. Being Baptist, when it came to remembering Easter, I knew that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and raised on Easter Sunday, and I did not think much about the time in between. There was no teaching on it. Encountering the Apostles Creed later opened up that timeline to me and gave me an idea of what happened between Friday and Sunday while Jesus was in the tomb. My Baptist understanding was that Christ slept in death but, as I encountered the Apostles Creed, I questioned if that was all that happened in between.
I later discovered that this “in between time” had a name: “The Harrowing of Hell”. In The Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, article 3 states: “AS Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell”(A Christian Presence in Every Community). There is no elaboration beyond this statement. I will explore more fully what this may mean.
There are several scriptures the church has pointed to for a clearer understanding of just what Christ did between crucifixion and resurrection. Catholic theologian, Dr. Taylor Marshall, writing on the subject of Christ’s descent into hell notes the following:
- Saint Paul teaches us in Ephesians 4:9 that Christ our Lord descended into Hell after He offered His life on the cross. “Now that He ascended, what is it, but because He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?”
- Saint Peter said in Acts 2:24 that “God hath raised up Christ, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it.” Christ loosed the Old Testament saints from hell.
- Saint Peter also wrote in 1 Peter 3:19 that “Christ coming in spirit preached to those spirits that were in prison, which had some time been incredulous.” On this verse, Saint Athanasius says that “Christ’s body was laid in the sepulchre when He went to preach to those spirits who were in bondage, as Peter said.
- The prophet Hosea foretold the descent of Christ into Hell in Hosea 13:14 by placing these words into the mouth of the Messiah: “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.”
- Zechariah foretells the redemption of those in the Limbo of the Fathers in Zech 9:11: “Thou also by the blood of Thy Testament hast sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit.” What could this mean except that the Messiah would free people from the underworld?
- Colossians 2:15: “Despoiling the principalities and powers, He hath exposed them confidently.” This refers to Christ’s victory over the condemned angels who are the demons of Hell.
- Psalm 23:7: “Lift up your gates, O ye princes,” which the medieval Gloss interprets: “that is–Ye princes of hell, take away your power, whereby hitherto you held men fast in hell” (Marshall) .
Next post we will look at theologians and church fathers more on the topic. For now there’s certainly some scripture to chew on.