Black Saturday: Satan, Hades, and the Beginnings of Hell

Oft forgotten amid the Holy Week observances of Palm Sunday, Maundy-Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter is Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, the day Jesus supposedly lay in the tomb after his crucifixion on Friday and prior to his resurrection on Sunday.

But this day worked on the imagination of early Christians in fantastic ways. In the Apostles’ Creed is the statement that Jesus “descended into Hell” as it is often translated into English. But in the Greek it is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, or “going down into the lowermost parts,” and in Latin something almost identical, descendit ad inferos, or “he descended to the lower ones/places.” This is not necessarily Hell, because such a concept was not fully worked out yet. It was rather the netherworld or underworld of Greco-Roman mythology, the conception of which would eventually provide us with the imagery most commonly associated with Hell.

The most fascinating account of Jesus going down to the underworld has been handed down in the Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal work that includes the Acts of Pilate (yes, that Pilate, whose ahistorical contrition in the Gospels is later elaborated to the point that he becomes canonized in some Christian sects) and Christ’s Descent into Hell. The older, out-of-copyright translation of Nicodemus by M.R. James is available in many places online. But the more updated and much less baroque translation by J.K. Elliot is far superior.

Probably from about the fifth or sixth century (though its dating is not without dispute), the Gospel of Nicodemus is a fascinating example of Greco-Christian syncretism — that is, of the mythological blending of Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. The modern nature of Hell and the afterlife in general has been the product of such syncretism; Dante’s version of that place, as told in his famous Inferno, has embedded itself in our culture—and much of that work was taken from Book 6 or Vergil’s Aeneid, wherein the hero descends into the underworld (as all good heroes in such stories must), where he witnesses the punishments of the wicked.

In Christ’s Descent into Hell, transmitted to us in a number of manuscripts (which boil down to one Greek version and two Latin ones), Satan has not yet been fully blended with Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. Today the two have been merged to the point that Hades is almost always presented as blackened and evil (see such popular movies as Disney’s Hercules or Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief), though he was not necessarily so in pre-Christian mythology. Indeed, the figure of Hades isn’t particularly evil in Christ’s Descent. He was simply the keeper of the underworld, who appears at times more powerful than Satan himself.

In Christ’s Descent, Satan and Hades have numerous conversations about Jesus prior to and after his arrival in the netherworld. A personification of the underworld and death itself, Hades, “the insatiable one,” questions Satan as to how they will withstand Jesus when he appears to be able to raise the dead at a single word. Indeed, Hades muses on the fact that Lazarus had recently up and walked out. He then orders Satan to go out to the gates and contend with Jesus “if you can.”

When Jesus does come and free the souls (which include an all-star cast of Biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaiah, David, and even Adam), he has the angels bind Satan and hand him over to Hades to be held until his second coming. The god of the underworld then poetically rebukes the angel of darkness:

O Beelzebub, heir of fire and torment, enemy of the saints, through what necessity did you contrive that the King of Glory should be crucified, so that he should come here and strip us naked? Turn and see that not one dead man is left in me, but all that you gained through the tree of knowledge you have lost through the tree of the cross.

Satan has thus not yet become the overlord of Hell, a role he so often plays in the imagination of Christians today. Rather, the Christians of this period still saw Hades as the god of the underworld, or at least the embodiment of death and the unblessed afterlife. (Nicodemus goes on to show the few folks who are in heaven: Enoch and Elijah, and the “good thief” crucified with Jesus.)

The Gospel of Nicodemus serves as yet another reminder that Christianity arose in the Greco-Roman world, absorbing much of its aesthetic along the way, and passing it to us in a wonderfully blended concoction. It also problematizes present-day visions of the fiery eternal punishment that we are everywhere served up, from the Left Behind series to the disturbing Hell Houses that each Halloween crop up in fundamentalist circles. The truth is that our ideas about Hell are the product of a long process — not a neatly transmitted one — that blended Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and other mythologies. Christians are reinventing them today as much as they did two millennia ago.


Don M. BurrowsAbout Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and current college preparatory school teacher. Don holds a Ph.D. in Classical Studies with a Ph.D. minor in New Testament. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and can be found routinely advocating that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.

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  • Matt

    How fascinating! And comforting as well. I wish that this could capture imaginations just as effectively. But I suppose “The people who told you that you will be eternally tortured were just jerks” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

    • frjohnmorris

      In Eastern Orthodoxy, we celebrate Holy Saturday as Christ’s descent to Hades to destroy the power of Hell and liberate those imprisoned there. If you look at the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, you see Christ trampling down the gates of Hades and lifting up Adam and Eve from Hades. Even the fire of Hell is the love of God which is a torment for the unrepentant sinner. Christ died for all humans and destroyed death and Hell for all humans. We create our own Hell for ourselves, by rejecting God and then facing God after death knowing that we rejected Him and His love.

  • Scott Little

    Hi Don,
    Loved the article. What can you tell me about the source and dating of he picture associated with the article. It looks to be a communal resurrection with Jesus lifting Adam by the hand, Eve behind him. Jesus is standing on Hades. In the upper left as the painting is viewed you have a grouping which includes John the Baptist in front, King David,bearded, and Solomon beside him. Any ideas who the other two in that grouping may be? I know Able is commonly seen in these communal resurrection scenes, but he usually has a shepherd’s crook. Thanks.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

      Hi Scott,
      That image is The Harrowing of Hell from the The Barberini Exultet Roll. I’m not sure about the specific identification of the figures though…

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/ Dan Wilkinson

      I see you asked Dom Crossan on FB. I’m going to copy his answer:

      Very appropriate image for today as Holy Saturday, Scott. It is the
      “Anastasis” (Resurrection) image on the special top-to-bottom scroll
      from which the deacon chanted the “Exultet” during the Easter Vigil. It
      is known as the Codex Barberini and is Latin Ms 592 in the Vatican Library (dated 1075-1100). It is actually John the Baptist who holds the banner with “Ecce Agnus Dei” on it. The others are not identified but–more significantly–in this western version of the eastern tradition, Hades and victory over death are morphing into Hell and salvation from sin (note Latin tags: Salvator, Salvi, Infernus). Also, unfortunately, Eve is almost lost in the crowd ..

  • Darach Conneely

    Great article. I hadn’t realised the Latin infernus simply meant lower world. But I would have thought an earlier reference than the apostle’s creed to Christ’s activities in the underworld would be 1Pet 3:19 Christ preaching to the spirits in prison. Is there a hint of Enoch in that?

  • Olga Sofia

    Great article! Still, I thought the Apostles’ creed had been recently changed, stating that Jesus “descended into Hades”? At least in Portuguese it has. And Hades is explained as “the resting place of the dead” rather than a fiery place of punishment.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

    As usual, I learn something new from your work.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James Jarvis

    In the church I attend we say “He descended into the dead” now rather than “He descended into Hell.”

    • FA Miniter

      And what does that mean?

      • http://limpingtowardsgrace.com/ James Jarvis

        In this case its just a more accurate and original translation and refers to the realm of the dead rather than hell which was a later translation.

    • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

      same here

  • http://www.nwspiritism.com/ Brian Foster

    The idea that sinners will be eternally punished goes against the forgiveness preached by Jesus. I agree, those who spread the idea of Hell forever are not doing our society any favors. If you look at Spiritism, revealed in the 1850’s by Allan Kardec, by the High Spirits sent by Jesus, they say, Hell is a state of mind and that sols exist in that state until they learn the doctrine of love and selflessness. Through reincarnation we are given the chance to continually improve ourselves. If you wish to know more about Spiritism visit http://www.nwspiritism.com

  • stefanstackhouse

    It is important to understand that time is a created dimension of the physical world and does not exist as some sort of cosmic absolute. We now understand this to be assuredly through through Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, so this is not some mere speculation. Because time is a created physical dimension, God and all that is “supernatural” or non-physical must exist “outside” of our physical universe of mater, energy, space. . . and time. This being so, it thus follows that when the spirit of the crucified and dead Jesus Christ “descended” into the non-physical place in which reside the souls of the departed, this created an opportunity for all of those souls to encounter the crucified, but not yet resurrected, Christ. Because this took place “outside” of time, this event happened for all departed souls – past, present, and even future.

    This does not set up an opportunity for a “second chance” for those who have died having rejected faith in Christ. If might, just possibly, set up an opportunity for a “first chance” for those who never had the opportunity to fully know the gospel of Christ, and thus to flesh out what very little light they might have had and followed during their lives. Note, however, that this is an encounter with only the crucified Christ, and not yet with the risen Christ. Thus, faith is still required, and rather substantial faith at that.

    I don’t know if this is what actually transpired or not. I certainly don’t hold it as a doctrinal truth. It is an interesting avenue of speculation, however.