Someone on the blog recently asked me about the idea that after Jesus’ death, and before his resurrection, he “descended into hell.” This is an affirmation found in the Apostle’s Creed, and so continues to be recited by millions of Christians still today. But what does it mean?
Throughout the history of the church it has usually been thought – by those who thought and/or affirmed such things — that Jesus descended to the realm of the dead to provide salvation to some (all?) of the people there, to liberate them from their condemnation (which was impossible *before* then because salvation can only come when Christ died – in this view – and so not before. So when he died he went down to save some (or all) of those who were there, taking them from Hades to heaven. This notion has traditionally been called “The Harrowing of Hell.”
But how did it work, exactly? And were did the idea come from?
As it turns out, I devoted a chapter to the question in my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press, 2022) and I thought it might be interesting to give a bit of it here. Some of the book is written in a fairly heavy scholarly mode, but this bit ain’t bad. I’ll do this over a couple of posts.
The idea that Christ descended to hell after his death to liberate its captives almost certainly originated from deductions based on widespread beliefs and assumptions at the heart of Christian theology: Christ brought salvation to the world through his death and resurrection and he did not simply cease to exist in the interim between these two salvific events; since he was himself “fully human,” he experienced the fate of all others by going to Hades; but while there he must, in some way, have continued the work he had done on earth above.
The earliest references to Christ’s death and resurrection give no clues about what he was doing during in the interim period. Both the brief creedal statement of 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5 (“he died for our sins … and was buried; he was raised on the third day … and he appeared”) and the full passion and resurrection narratives of the Gospels (Matthew 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-24; John 18-21) are silent on the matter. The first hints of divine activity during the “missing period” do not provide much help either. Thus we have Peter’s speech at Pentecost in Acts 2:23-28,: “God raised him, having loosed the birth-pangs of death,” followed by the quotation of Psalm 16, “For you did not abandon my soul to Hades, nor did you allow your Holy One to see corruption.” Here Christ is understood to have been in Hades and then delivered, but there is no hint about what, if anything, he was doing there. The question raised in Ephesians 4.9 is scarcely more instructive: “What does it mean that ‘he ascended’ if not that he had (earlier) descended into the lowest parts of the earth.”
Of greater importance for later speculation was that most intriguing and perplexing of passages, 1 Peter 3:18-21:
For Christ died for sins once and for all… having been put to death in the flesh but being made alive in the spirit, in which also, having gone to the spirits who were in prison, he preached to those who were formerly disobedient, when God’s patience waited during the days when Noah was preparing the ark.
The passage was often read, naturally enough, with the equally enigmatic statement of the following chapter, which is nearly as difficult to translate as to interpret: “For to this end, proclamation was made to the dead, that they might be judged in the flesh like humans but live in the spirit like God” (1 Peter 4:6). These texts, separately or together, have exercised interpreters for as long as there have been interpreters and have proved more fruitful for speculation than helpful for guidance, down to the present time, as both textual emendations and exegetical monographs attest. In early times, a variety of views emerged to explain Christ’s activities immediately after his death. These views did not develop in a linear fashion: newer views never supplanted older ones and different views could be held by different people at the same time or even simultaneously by the same person.
An obvious conclusion drawn from the passages in 1 Peter was that Christ descended to Hades precisely to proclaim his message of salvation there as he had done in the world above. At first the idea was simply expressed with no specifics about whom Christ addressed or what effect he had. In the narrative of the Gospel of Peter (also falsely attributed), when Christ and his cross emerge from the tomb, the voice from heaven asks “Have you preached to those who are asleep?” and the cross replies “Yes.” Strictly speaking, it is the cross that has preached to the residents of the world below, but presumably it is a metonymy. [Note to blog members: break out your dictionary!]
Soon, however, the tradition begins to specify an audience for Jesus’ underworld proclamation. Most often it is the righteous of Israel, beginning with (or sometimes only) the Patriarchs and the Prophets. This is the view, for example, of Justin, Irenaeus, and other second-century sources. The popularity of the view is evidenced by the fact that the second-century pagan critic Celsus mocked it, asking if anyone could really believe that Christ tried to make converts in the world below. Origen, naturally, rebuked his opponent and argued that this is precisely what did happen (Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.42).
An intriguing variation on the theme, attesting again to its wide acceptance, is found in Marcion, at least according to Irenaeus. Consistent with Marcion’s distinctive perspective, Christ went to Hades to preach salvation not to the righteous Israelites but to Cain, the Sodomites, the Egyptians, “and all the pagans.” These are the ones who were then taken to the heavenly realm; Abel, Enoch, Noah, and all the patriarchs and prophets were left behind to be punished in Hades (Irenaeus, Adv.haer.. 1. 27,3).
Still in the second century an alternative explanation of Christ’s descent arose, that he went to Hades not to preach salvation but to manifest his power. This idea may be suggested already in the Ascension of Isaiah, which speaks of Christ having “plundered the angel of death” (9.14) A clearer reference comes nearer the end of the century in the Paschal Homily of Melito of Sardis, where Christ identifies himself by affirming his display of power in the world below:
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. (Pasch. 102-03)
A similar conceit appears in Gregory Thaumaturgus, On All the Saints: “Hades and the devil have been despoiled and stripped of their ancient armor, and cast out of their peculiar power. And even as Goliath has his head cut off with his own sword, so also is the devil, who has been the father of death, put to rout through death.” Eventually, this became a standard view, as seen, much later for example, in comment of Ambrosiaster, “After he despoiled hell by the power of the Father and arose after conquering Death, he ascended to Heaven with the souls he had snatched away. For all those who had seen the Savior in hell hoped for salvation from him and were set free, as the apostle Peter testifies” (in Epist ad Rom, 10).