In the Apostles’ Creed we profess that Christ “descended into Hell.” Another priest recently asked me to justify that tenet of the Apostles’ Creed according to Scripture. He said, “I know that it pre-dates the Great Schism and that it is not an East versus West issue, but if I can’t find it in Scripture, then I can’t teach on it.” Thankfully, the doctrine can be found in scripture.
For those unfamiliar, the Harrowing of Hell is an ancient tradition wherein, in the interim between Good Friday afternoon and Easter morning, Our Lord stormed the Gates of Hell and released those who had been there but were destined for Heaven. Since salvation can only come through Christ Jesus, prior to His Incarnation none could have achieved salvation and found their eternal home in Heaven. Upon Christ’s death, He was able to go into Hell and release those who had been waiting for His advent.
Something seems amiss about this idea and these hesitations are justified. Would this tradition suggest that all of the Patriarchs and Prophets would have been in Hell waiting for Jesus’ arrival? Were they burning in a lake of fire for a few hundred years patiently awaiting Easter morning? Not quite. The Greeks refer to the place of the dead as Hades. The Romans translated the words as Infernum which we render as “Hell.” In ancient Judaism there was no distinction between where the good people went and where the bad people went when they died. According to the Jews, once they died, everybody went to Sheol. These words are often used interchangeably in translations, but that might not be fair. There came to be a distinction prior to the reconstruction of the Temple between the Sheol to which everyone went and the nicer neighborhood which was called “Abraham’s Bosom.”
Abraham’s Bosom was a place which reflected rest and comfort as a child climbing upon their father’s lap when they were weary. Since, of course, Abraham was the father of all of the Jews, any Jew resting in the Bosom of Abraham would be resting on their father’s lap. We see this idea in the New Testament in St. Luke’s Gospel when Our Lord tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. (16:19:31) Clearly, when Lazarus dies he is resting peacefully in the comfort of his Father Abraham, whereas the Rich Man is suffering in the “place of torment.” Thus, while the Patriarchs and Prophets would have been in Sheol, which is sometimes translated as Hell, it is not right to think of them roasting in a lake of fire.
Our Lord prophesied his Harrowing of Hell in St. John’s Gospel when he proclaimed, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” (5:25) Similarly, St. Peter makes repeated mention of the Harrowing in his first epistle when he writes,
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine long suffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. (3:18-20)
“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.” (4:6)
And finally,St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians,
“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says:
‘When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men.’ [Ps 68:18]
(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)” (4:7-10)
Thus, perhaps it is inappropriate to imagine Christ, “kicking in the Gates” and overthrowing demons and devils with a mighty swords and moves that would put Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee both to shame, but Holy Scripture is clear about this. After His death, Our Lord “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient.” The dead heard the Voice of God, and those who did hear lived as Our Lord took hostages out of Hell and “led captivity captive,” taking those who were prisoners into the paradise of eternal life in Heaven.
In Eastern Orthodox churches, this event is recalled on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Pascha (Easter). There is tremendous variety in icons representing the event in the life of Christ. Most often, Christ is removing a stone from off of a tomb and leading out Adam and Eve as well as the various Patriarchs and Prophets. Thanks be to God, God prepared a way that even those born before true salvation could be offered could hear the Gospel preached. This is likely what Jesus meant when he told the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (St. John 8:56)