The harrowing of hell and the victory of Christ

The harrowing of hell and the victory of Christ March 30, 2013
Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection, Wikimedia Commons

We read in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “descended into hell.” Some Christians today are unsure about this idea, but it is an ancient and venerable belief of the church. We commemorate this descent on Holy Saturday, the somber sabbath following Christ’s great labor on the cross.

While his body rested in Joseph’s crypt, the Lord entered hades. In this event we call the harrowing of hell, Christ entered not as victim, but as victor. He came to raze the place. There in the realm of the dead, Christ blasted through Satan’s gates like a battering ram.

Said Cyril of Alexandria, “When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone” (Ancient Commentary on Scripture 11.107).

As fourth-century Spanish poet Prudentius painted the scene, “The door [of hell] is forced and yields before Him; the bolts are torn away; down falls the pivot broken; that gate so ready to receive the inrush, so unyielding in face of those that would return, is unbarred and gives back the dead. . .” (The Daily Round 9).

Proclamation of the gospel

The scriptural foundation for this view rests on a handful of passages. In the language of Ephesians 4, for instance, Christ “descended into the lower parts of the earth” and “led captivity captive.” In the language of the gospel, he came to bind the strong man — the devil — and loot his house, the treasure of Satan being the souls of men. To these passages add 1 Peter 3.19, in which the crucified Christ “proclaimed to the spirits in prison,” that is, in hades.

Some translations render that word “preached,” but the idea is one of announcement, a declaration of victory, which is exactly how fourth-century theologian and hymnographer Ephraim the Syrian saw it:

[T]he voice of our Lord sounded into Hell, and He cried aloud and burst the graves one by one. Tremblings took hold on Death; Hell that never of old had been lighted up, into it there flashed splendors, from the Watchers [angels] who entered in and brought out the dead to meet Him, who was dead and gives life to all. (Nisibene Hymns 36.11)

Christ “shouted with authority to the suffering souls, according to the words of the new covenant,” said Cyril, “so that he might save all those who would believe in him” (ACS 11.107).

Melito of Sardis, writing in the late second century, presented this as a bold proclamation as well:

“It is I,” says Christ,
“I am he who destroys death,
and triumphs over the enemy,
and crushes Hades,
and binds the strong man,
and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights.”
(On Pascha 102)

Binding the devil, defeating death

Satan never saw it coming. Christ bound the strong man, raided his house, and liberated the captives.

A classic iconographic depiction of the resurrection shows Christ ascending from the grave, Hades’ doors broken and lying in a crosswise pattern as the Lord takes Adam and Eve by the hand — takes all of fallen humanity by the hand — and frees them from their age-old imprisonment to the devil. Directly referencing the gospel imagery, the icon often depicts Satan as an old man, bound beneath the feet of the risen Christ.

Not only was Satan defeated, but so was death itself. In Nisibene Hymns, Ephraim personified death and put these words on his lips:

My throne was set for me in Sheol: and one arose that was dead, and hurled me from it. . . . In a man that was slain lo! there has entered into Sheol He that takes her captive. I used to take all men captive: the Son of Captivity Whom I took captive has taken me captive. He Whom I took captive has led her away and is gone to Paradise. (38.1)

The harrowing of hell represents the victory of Christ over all his enemies and the path of salvation opened to all who would believe. While some contemporary theology has no room or understanding of this doctrine, Christians are invited to see it as a vision of the conquering Savior, whose triumph is so complete, so thorough, so exhaustive that he descends to hell and empties it of every soul who responds to his call.

Because of harrowing of hell, we can join King David and sing, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise your name” (Ps 142.7, 141.8 LXX).

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  • Joel,

    Great post! One thing that I have noticed is helpful when discussing these issues is to use the terms Sheol/Hades for the realm of the dead, rather than “Hell,” as that has taken on a new context in modern English and among evangelicalism. I end up confusing my friends when I use “Hell” for “Hades” and vice versa! 🙂 Inconsistent translations have compounded the issue, as well…

    I’m really glad you pointed out the idea that Christ entered into Hades proclaiming the victory, rather than just “preaching.” Christ was not trying to persuade the faithful of times past that he was the Messiah — he was proclaiming it through his shattering of death itself. Being God, he destroyed death by death, and death could have no hold on him. Salvation has been offered to the whole world, and it is incumbent upon us to only let go of our own selfish desires, and say “yes” to God. This is, after all, what asceticism is all about — saying “yes” to God and his salvation. There is no meriting of that gift of Grace, and we can do nothing on our own apart from him.

    In peace,

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Gabe. Probably a good call on hell vs. hades. I usually end up using both interchangeably, as I do above.

      • In the old(er) English usage, it meant “hades,” but has come to be used for Gehenna and the Lake of Fire, so the confusion is everywhere! 🙂

        • Joel J. Miller

          Yes, it refers here to hades, sheol, the pit, the grave, etc., not the lake of fire.

  • Steve

    Christ took captivity captive.

    As Ephesians 4:8 states:

    “When He ascended on high,
    He led captive a host of captives,
    And He gave gifts to men.”

    Alister McGrath also has something poignant to say about this portion of the creed where he states…
    “It is a statement of belief that Jesus really did die. For the New Testament writers, Christ was not raised “from death” (an abstract idea) but “from the dead” (Acts2:24; Romans1:4; Colossians 2:12.) The Greek term literally means “out of those who are dead.” In other words, Jesus shared the same fate of all who have died. Again, we find the same point being stressed: Jesus was really human like us. His divinity does not compromise his humanity. Being God incarnate did not mena he was spared from tasting death. He did not merely seem to die; he really did die and joined those who had died before him. And in the glorious act of resurrection, God raised him from the dead!”

    from “I Believe” – Exploring the Apostles Creed, p 62.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Amen. Thanks for pointing out that additional validation of the humanity of Christ. Jesus joined himself to all of our suffering. But the Lord of Life was incapable of suffering in the place of Death. Instead by entering our suffering there he made possible our freedom.

      • Steve

        And I’d like to add to the discussion that “Although He was a Son…” and by joining Himself to our suffering Jesus not only purchased our Freedom but He also “… learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8.) And as the concept of suffering in the Greek world of the time (pathos) implied, not only did Christ experience death as we mere mortals do, Jesus, though being in the form of God voluntarily accepted the infirmity and subjection to the hostile forces that are unavoidable for his mortal creatures. To say that not only was he crucified but also that he suffered is to insist on the reality of his body against the Gnostic or docetic claim that the incorporeal God cannot truly partake of our condition. As understood in the creed, it is so worded that the suffering Christ partook of our condition so personally and intimately to make it clear that he was the real subject of the crucifixion and the attendant suffering was “true God from true God.” Inspired by Ancient Christian Doctrine, Volume # 3 – Editor Thomas Oden, p 68.

        • Joel J. Miller

          Amen again. If you haven’t read The Jesus We Missed by Patrick Henry Reardon you should check it out. The book explores that theme to ground our understanding of Christ’s humanity. One of my favorite books on the life and work of Jesus.

  • Dr. Suzanne Carpenter

    Thanks Eric! I thought I’d share this too from my Catholic Catechism. Always blows my mind when I try to think about all that happens on Holy Saturday! God Bless! Suzanne

    635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”485 Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”486 Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”487

    Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”488. (Catechism of the Catholic Church).

    • Joel J. Miller

      I like that. Ephraim the Syrian said something similar about our sleep in death. He said that “The Wakeful came to wake us.”

  • One of the best sermons I ever heard was preached on this subject. In 1986, Lance Lambert preached on the night of Good Friday in the Garden of Gethsamene. We had just processed around the city with candles and flashlights with a great crowd of believers. I remember that the point was that when Yeshua sweated blood as he prayed, he was anticipating his descent into hell. He was experiencing the punishment of all of the sins of humanity–not just heinous crimes but even the slights adults inflict on small children. Although not all recognize it, He paid the penalty for all of us. He came to judge the world, but first took the just punishment that we deserve. He then triumphs over Satan, and binds Him, releasing all of the righteous in Sheol from the adversary’s grip. This article helps to explain these events well.

  • Joel, very grateful for your post and wondering if you could help me further. I shared your post on facebook and received this comment from a friend:
    “the Church Fathers never taught that Christ redeemed souls in the hell of the damned (Infernum damnatorum), but rather that He descended to Abraham’s bosom (Limbus patrum), i.e. the place of the souls who had died in a state of grace.”

    That doesn’t seem right to me and to what your post says, but I am not a trained theologian. What do you think of that statement? Is that your understanding of the Fathers? Of what the creed means when it says “descended into hell”?

    THanks and Easter blessings.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Well, the text of 1 Peter clearly says the people to whom Christ made his proclamation were unrighteous. He “proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey” (1 Pet 3.19-20). These are ungodly people hearing (though not in every case answering) the call of Christ. Met. Hilarion’s article referred to above deals with this and traces it through such fathers as Clement and Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, and John Damascene. Christ’s voice echoed throughout hades and all who would follow did so.

      • Thanks. I really don’t agree with the person who posted that to me, but I am not an expert. Good to hear your response.

    • As Joel said in his reply, Christ descended to Hades or “the place of the dead” — and by that it is meant *all* dead people. We certainly think there was a “divide” between the righteous dead and the unbelieving dead (as Christ teaches in the Gospel), but he overthrew death for all the world, not just a few. Everyone will be resurrected, and salvation is offered to everyone indiscriminately.

      • Joel J. Miller


  • Thank you, Joe! This is fascinating. I am a huge fan of the Christus Victor motif, but I’ve never known what to do with these passages, to be honest. This makes so much sense, and explains more clearly how Christ’s victory is “complete.”

  • Phil

    I never really understood the significance of the Great and Holy Sabbath until I went to my first Lamentations and Holy Saturday services. The Lamentations sing of the Sun of Righteousness setting beneath the earth to lighten those in Hell, of how ‘Desiring to save Adam,/ Thou didst come down to earth;/ Not finding him on earth, O Master,/ Thou didst descend to Hell seeking him.’

    The Liturgy on Holy Saturday includes this hymn:

    “Today, Hell cries out, groaning: ‘My authority has been destroyed!
    I received a mortal man as one of the dead, but have no power to hold Him,
    But with Him, I shall lose those over whom I have reigned.
    I held the dead from every age, but, see! He raises them all!’
    Glory to Thy Cross and Resurrection, O Lord!”

    But, perhaps the most moving part of the service comes after the Epistle reading. In the Russian tradition, while the reader and choir chant Psalm 81 (with the continued refrain of “Arise, O God, and judge the earth, for to Thee belong all the nations!”), the black or purple hangings in the church are removed and replaced with white ones, commemorating the victory over Death and Hell.

    They neither know nor understand, but walk about in darkness. Let all the foundations of the earth be shaken!

    Arise, O God! Judge the earth, for to Thee belong all the nations!

  • I love the scene in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf fights the Balrog, while flying with sword in hand, plummeting into the fiery depths. Pretty cool picture of this.