I hope you are having a blessed Holy Week!
One vital part of this week has meant a lot to me over the last decade since I joined the Orthodox Church. Tucked into Holy Weekend, between Jesus’ Crucifixion on Friday and His glorious Resurrection on Sunday, the Church celebrates Jesus’ triumphant Harrowing of Hades—something that was once proclaimed in Protestant theology but has essentially been dropped.
If you speak of the Harrowing of Hades today, the vast majority of Protestant Christians will say, “The what?” That was my question too, during my first Pascha service. I had no concept of a “Holy Saturday”—I was accustomed to observing Holy Friday, which we called “Good Friday,” and the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. Between the two events was . . . a lull. That in-between time on Saturday was a little break devoted to dyeing Easter eggs, making preparations for Easter lunch, and the usual Saturday chores, like mowing the lawn and dusting.
I wasn’t aware that Jesus was actually doing something before the angel rolled the stone away from His Tomb. It’s strange to think that I had to go to the ancient Church in order to reclaim a traditional Protestant belief that has fallen by the wayside. More on that later.
In order to understand what Jesus did between His death and Resurrection, we have to know what Jewish people believed about the afterlife in the Old Testament era. Popular scholar and podcaster Fr. Stephen De Young is an expert on these things, so I’ll quote from “St. Stephen and the Glorification of Humanity” on his wonderful blog, The Whole Counsel:
With only a few exceptions, the fate of all those who perished in the pre-Christ era is very clear in the Old Testament Scriptures. Whether righteous or wicked, Israelite or Gentile, a worshipper of Yahweh or of other gods, all flesh decayed and every soul went down into Sheol, Hades, the grave. For the righteous, for the follower of Yahweh the God of Israel, there were two hopes. The first was that one would rest with the fathers (e.g. 1 Kin./3 Kg 2:10). This was not only a euphemism for death but expressed a belief that there was some region of the underworld in which the departed dwelt in a state of relative rest and respite compared to the fates of the wicked (c.f. 1 Enoch 22:2, 9; Luke 16:22–26).
Side note here: We can see this view of the afterlife in Jesus’ parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, when Jesus says,
So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (Luke 16:22–23)
Lazarus was comforted in the presence of Abraham while the unnamed rich man could see Lazarus from his place of torment.
Father Stephen continues,
There was also a second hope that exceeded this marginal promise: that Yahweh would not abandon his faithful ones in Sheol (Ps. 16:10). This is the hope of the anastasis, the resurrection. . . .
For God’s people, however, this was not the final stage of their existence, but an intermediate one. A day was coming when they would be raised again to new and eternal life to right the wrong which had been done to them.
Biblical References to the Harrowing of Hades
Well, that’s very nice, you may say, but Jesus’ parables aren’t all interpreted literally. Where else is this found in Scripture? I will mention just a few places here, then point you to an excellent resource. The Scriptures don’t give us a blow-by-blow description, but they do provide many hints of Jesus’ work in Hades.
Hebrews 2:14 states that Christ became flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”
Saint Paul is more direct in Ephesians 4:9, when he discusses Christ’s descent into hades in light of His later Ascension to heaven. The apostle writes, “Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?”.
Saint Peter proclaimed in his sermon at Pentecost that King David “spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades [meaning that He was there at some point—LH], nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31). Peter also writes in the third chapter of his first epistle that Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah” (3:19–20) and continues in the next chapter, “For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6).
Now, I’ve read the New Testament multiple times over the years, but I never really put all these things together. I think I just skimmed those verses because I didn’t really understand them. I didn’t have a context, just a vague awareness that somehow Jesus did something to proclaim victory to the dead, whatever that meant. Certainly nobody in my circles talked about Jesus descending to hades.
When Jesus died, Scripture tells us that events on Earth pointed to something cataclysmic going on in the underworld. Saint Matthew records in chapter 27 of his Gospel that right after “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit,”
the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matt. 27:50–53)
Why were the Old Testament righteous ones suddenly resurrected after all this time?
Because they had been freed by the One who had conquered death and stormed Satan’s kingdom.
Father Stephen explains,
These signs convey what was happening in the spiritual world, the invisible creation, at the same time. This was the time of the harrowing of hades when Christ descended to the realm of the underworld where the fathers and the righteous dead dwelt. There he defeated the devil and bound him, taking the righteous with him to Paradise. Though these events transpired in the unseen world, not only were they attested to by the aforementioned signs, but they also produced events in the visible world, as the saints in and around Jerusalem rose bodily from their tombs to new life (Matt 27:52–53).
The Faith of My Childhood, Abridged
So what happened to the teaching of the harrowing of hades in the Protestant West? It’s actually a doctrinal belief. I know this because I grew up in a liturgical United Methodist church, and every Sunday we recited the Apostles’ Creed, a statement of faith that is used in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions as well as in many Protestant churches. If you grew up Orthodox, you might not know the Apostles’ Creed; the ancient Church has had the Nicene Creed since AD 325 and has seen no need for an alternative.
I won’t recite the whole thing here, although you can find a traditional English text of it online. The section about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed states belief in:
Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose from the dead . . .
Wait. He “was crucified, dead, and buried,” then He did what? “He descended into hell.” I don’t remember any formal teaching about that while I was growing up, but I was young and wasn’t necessarily paying attention. Still, I do remember reciting that Creed every week and wondering how or why Jesus went to hell before His Resurrection.
By the time I grew old enough to question this statement, it was a moot point; my husband and I attended a Southern Baptist church, a denomination that has its own creed with no mention of what Jesus was doing while in the Tomb. Later we were involved in a series of nondenominational churches that had various statements of belief that fit in with the garden-variety Evangelical mold. None of them used traditional creeds of any sort.
But historically in the West, the Apostles’ Creed was foundational, used in Latin churches and in the early era after the Protestant Reformation. This belief in Jesus’ descent into hades was a part of that foundation, so I started doing a bit of internet exploration. It turns out that the United Methodist Church has dropped the “He descended into hell” part of the Creed. Perhaps other branches of Methodism have retained it, as the Lutheran Church has. I found some Lutheran teaching material that goes through each article of the Apostles’ Creed. It addresses Jesus’ suffering and death but completely ignores the “descended into hell” wording. That part is just a group of words that remains unexplained.
In Anglicanism, I went all the way back to 1543 to find a document, A Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man, with a preface thought to be written by King Henry VIII. (I’ll refrain from comment on the value of his endorsement.) The document includes this statement:
And after he was thus crucified, and dead upon the cross, he descended in soul into hell, and loosed the pains or sorrows thereof, wherewith it was not possible that he should be holden, and conquered and oppressed both the Devil and hell, and also death itself, whereunto all mankind was condemned by the fall of our forefather Adam into sin.
Finally! But 21st-century Christianity is definitely not the 16th. I surveyed the websites of some of the most popular Christian churches in the Denver area, most of them nondenominational, and found churches that affirm the Apostles’ Creed, churches with their own statements of faith, and one vibrant multiethnic church with zero statement of beliefs on its website.
All of these churches believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man, that He died on the Cross and was bodily resurrected on the third day. But none of them mention Jesus’ descent into hades as a part of their Easter services. The in-between part is missing.
Where did it go? Author Robert Arakaki wrote a thorough article on the subject, “Evidence for Christ’s Descent into Hell” in the Ancient Faith blog Orthodox–Reformed Bridge. He discusses the scriptural evidence for the harrowing of hades and the teachings of the Church Fathers on the subject, and he also notes that John Calvin thought Christ’s descent into hades was a metaphor, something he referred to as a “fable” and a “childish” teaching by the “great authors” of the Church. We’ll ignore Calvin’s jaw-dropping arrogance here except to point out that his lasting influence in the West at least partially explains why such an important doctrine came to be ignored and finally forgotten by many Protestants.
The Protestant amnesia has become so pervasive that even in a resource that I often appreciate, the daily Breakpoint radio show, authors John Stonestreet and Shane Morris stated in their episode “God Rested”: “After God incarnate had declared His work on our behalf ‘finished,’ He honored the Sabbath once more, just as He had at the beginning of creation. In the tomb, God rested.”
The article seems to imply—I hope this doesn’t sound too irreverent—that Jesus spent the day chillaxing in the Tomb before the Resurrection.
Yes, Christ observed the Sabbath rest in the Tomb, but, as the article “Holy Saturday” from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website makes clear,
His rest . . . is not inactivity but the fulfillment of the divine will and plan for the salvation of humankind and the cosmos. He who brought all things into being, makes all things new. The re-creation of the world has been accomplished once and for all. Through His incarnation, life and death Christ has filled all things with Himself. He has opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the author of life would be dominated by corruption.
The Faith of the Apostles, Unabridged
The idea of dropping or ignoring an article of a creed may come as a shock to some Orthodox people. We know what happens when you mess with a Creed—you get the Great Schism, the final massive fissure between East and West after Rome added the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed. But Protestantism has splintered from its beginning, so the idea of adding to or subtracting from a creed, of creating one’s own statement of faith, or of ditching a historical creed altogether is nothing new. Few eyebrows are raised.
This is one of many reasons why I’m Orthodox—not the proclamation of Holy Saturday specifically, but the Church’s commitment to unbroken continuity in Faith and practice, of preserving the Faith of the apostles. It’s unsurprising that one of the topics for theological debate in the Protestant world is the question, “What happened to all those people who died before Jesus came?”
Holy Saturday answers that question definitively: Christ personally delivered those souls from hades. His sacred work during this holy weekend is not a bit of trivia or a section of a creed that can be dropped or forgotten. It is a part of the treasury of the Orthodox Faith and a vital part of the Paschal celebration. The hymns of Holy Saturday reflect the unchanging reality that Jesus’ time in the Tomb, that in-between part, has cosmic significance. As the Canon of Pascha proclaims, “Things now are filled with light, the heaven and the earth and all that is beneath the earth.”
The Church tells this fuller story of Jesus’ work in the resurrectional hymns:
When he took down Your immaculate Body from the Cross, the honorable Joseph wrapped it in a clean linen shroud with spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb.
When You descended unto death, O Lord who yourself are immortal Life, then did You mortify Hades by the lightning flash of Your Divinity. Also when You raised the dead from the netherworld, all the Powers of the heavens were crying out: O Giver of life, Christ our God, glory be to You.
The Angel standing at the sepulcher cried out and said to the ointment-bearing women: The ointments are appropriate for mortal men, but Christ has been shown to be a stranger to decay.
The Harrowing of Hades in Resurrection Iconography
Jesus’ triumphant rescue operation is central to Pascha. The icon of the Resurrection in the Church features the descent of Christ into hades, the place of the dead. You can search for “icon of the resurrection” and examine one of the many examples for yourself. I published a blog post in 2019, “Theology in Color: Truths Proclaimed in the Icon of the Resurrection,” that discusses the many powerful details in this icon.
It depicts a victorious Christ trampling upon death and seizing Adam and Eve in His hands, lifting them from the grave. In the version of the icon in my house, the right sleeve of Adam’s green robe is blue. It’s not a coincidence that this is the arm that Christ is touching. The color change shows that Adam is already beginning to be transformed. In some icons, Christ is grasping both Adam’s and Eve’s arms, and those sleeves will always show a change in color.
In this victorious icon, Jesus’ defeat of Satan and his kingdom is explicit. I’ll reprint my own words from that blog post, which feels a little weird but offers a succinct explanation:
Beneath Jesus’ nail-scarred feet—notice that His feet and hands still carry the marks of His Crucifixion—lie two gold bars, often in the shape of a cross. These are the gates of Hades, which He has broken open. The icon proclaims visually the words of the Paschal hymn: Christ has trampled death by His own death.
In the darkness below His feet, Hades is shown in chaos after Jesus descended and liberated the captives in the “harrowing of Hades.” The word harrow comes from an Old English word used to describe the plowing of a field when the cultivator churns up the earth.
Most Resurrection icons show keys, chains, and locks scattered in the darkness, because the power of death to bind humanity has been destroyed. And in the depths of the pit, a skeletal being is sometimes shown, lying prostrate and bound up. This is Hades personified—Death and/or Satan, who has been destroyed and defeated by Christ, illustrating the truth of Hebrews 2:14, that “through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” Our Savior’s death brings life to all.
At midnight, three days from now, in the joyous celebration of Pascha, we will proclaim the centrality of Christ’s victory over death and Satan as we sing,
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
In two weeks, I’ll be able to greet you officially with a hearty “Christ is risen!” It’s a good season to consider using the sign of the cross in prayer, which is the topic of our next episode.
A blessed Holy Week and Pascha to you!