The Harrowing of Hell
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.(1 Pet 3:18-22)
For Protestants, this is a difficult and most troubling passage, one whose meaning is unclear, and therefore subject to all sorts of interpretations. What does the phrase “spirits in prison” mean? Why did Jesus preach to them, and what was the content of His sermon?[i] When I was in High School, I remember a sermon on this passage in which it was claimed that the “spirits in prison” were the fallen angels, and Jesus message was: “I have beaten you.” While it made for a powerful sermon, this interpretation cannot be supported by the text — although in the absence of other evidence, it is certainly no worse than any of the other interpretations I heard.
And yet, none of the Protestant interpretations of this passage relate to the interpretation given by the early church, which was derived from the book of Tobit and various Old Testament passages, as illumined by the life of Christ. In the book of Tobit we read his prayer of thanksgiving, in which he makes reference to what most Christians call the Harrowing of Hell; the descent of Christ into Hell, where he led captivity captive — that is, from whence he delivered the Old Testament saints from their bondage of sin, death, and the devil.
Then Tobit wrote a prayer of rejoicing, and said, Blessed be God that liveth for ever, and blessed be his kingdom. For he doth scourge, and hath mercy: he leadeth down to hell [Hades], and bringeth up again: neither is there any that can avoid his hand (Tobit 13:1-2).
It is important to note that the verses above are from the King James Version, which tends to conflate the terms for Hell and Hades, translating them both as Hell. However, the word used here is not the Greek word for Hell, but the word for Hades [άδην], the place for disembodied spirits; in the Old Testament, this equates to the Hebrew word Sheol [שׁאול], being the grave, the abode of the dead. While in the New Testament Hades is reserved for the wicked awaiting judgment, in the Old Testament (prior to Christ’s Descent into Hades), Hades/Sheol held both the righteous and the damned.
One of the most important Old Testament passages concerning Christ’s descent into Hades is found in Psalms 24. This passage comes in two parts; the first declares that all of creation is the LORD’S, and states that only the pure in heart will stand in the holy place of God.
The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah. (Ps 24:1-6)
After this passage comes the word Selah, which is a musical and liturgical term, giving one time to pause and reflect upon what has come before. Reflecting on the fact that only the pure in heart will see God (Mt 5:8), we must ask who, then, is pure? Who is without sin? (Joh 8:7) The answer, of course is Jesus, who was tempted like us, yet without sin (Heb 4:15); who was offered for and on behalf of our sins, and was raised again without sin (Heb 9:28). In the remainder of Psalm 24 we see Christ, the King of glory, as being the one able to conquer the hold death had on humanity, and who has opened for us the gates of paradise.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah. (Ps 24:7-10)
These last verses from Psalm 24 are part of the Paschal liturgy of the Eastern Church. After reciting (and acting out) this passage, the doors of the church are flung open and the people enter, after which is sung the Easter troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.” This refrain, dating as early as the 2nd century, contains the theological meaning of what is termed the Harrowing of Hell. Death could not hold Him. In defeating death, Christ led captivity captive (Ps 68:18; Eph 4:8), meaning He led the souls of the departed righteous out of their resting place, where they are now kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation (1 Pet 1:5).
We should note that this doctrine is not some medieval invention of the Roman Catholic Church, but is in fact the universal witness of the Church into the apostolic age. We know this from a variety of sources; the New Testament itself, the apocryphal writings of the New Testament period, Christian poetry, and fathers of the early church.
New Testament sources include Jesus’ discussion of His impending three-day burial: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”(Matt 12:40); Christian tradition holds this to be a foretelling of Christ’s descent into Hell.[ii] Other incidental passages include Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:22-32); Paul’s sermon in the synagogue of Antioch (Acts 13:34-37); and “St Paul’s words that speak of how Christ ‘descended into the lower parts of the earth’ [Eph 4:9] and of his victory over death and hell.'[1 Cor 15:54-57; Rom 10:7; Col 2:14-15]”[iii] Perhaps the most important passage, which became a prototype for other writings of the post-apostolic period, is the passage from 1 Peter which opens this discourse.
Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev notes the Harrowing of Hell is much more prominent in the Christian Apocalypses than in the canonical texts. Among these texts, which were “indirectly” used by the early church are the Christiain interpolations into the Ascension of Isaiah and The Testament of Asher, along with the “Christian adaptation” of The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Other texts include The Gospel of Peter, The Epistle of the Apostles, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Sybilline Oracles, The Teachings of Silvanus, The Gospel of Bartholomew, and The Gospel of Nicodemus. This last book “exerted decisive influence on the formation of church doctrine on the subject.”[iv]
Besides the previously mentioned Easter troparion, which is dated to at least as early as the 2nd century, we should mention the poem “On Pascha” by St Melito of Sardis, and dated to the middle of the 2nd Century, a portion of which is quoted below.
66. When this one came from heaven to earth for the sake of the one who suffers, and had clothed himself with that very one through the womb of a virgin, and having come forth as man, he accepted the sufferings of the sufferer through his body which was capable of suffering. And he destroyed those human sufferings by his spirit which was incapable of dying. He killed death which had put man to death.
68. This is the one who covered death with shame and who plunged the devil into mourning as Moses did Pharaoh. This is the one who smote lawlessness and deprived injustice of its offspring, as Moses deprived Egypt. This is the one who delivered us from slavery into freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life, from tyranny into an eternal kingdom, and who made us a new priesthood, and a special people forever.
70. This is the one who became human in a virgin, who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven.
71. This is the lamb that was slain. This is the lamb that was silent. This is the one who was born of Mary, that beautiful ewe-lamb. This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night; the one who was not broken while on the tree, who did not see dissolution while in the earth, who rose up from the dead, raising up mankind below. [v]
Instead of placing the saving work of Christ into different categories and treating each atomistically (as is done in western theology), St Melito of Sardis connects it all into a seamless narrative, flowing from the pre-existence of the Son of God, His clothing of himself of the flesh of the Virgin Mary, His life, death, burial, and His raising of mankind from the grave by virtue of His own resurrection. This same method is repeated elsewhere in his “On Pascha”, to similar effect.
Another interesting bit of poetry comes to us by way of the Odes of Solomon, a work most scholars believe first appeared in Syria in the mid-second century. About their origin, Rutherford Hayes Platt states: “one of the most plausible explanations is that they are songs of newly baptized Christians of the First Century.”[vi] With this in mind, it is interesting to note that these Odes contain significant references to and descriptions of Christ’s descent into Hades.[vii] Ode 42 is particularly interesting, in that it describes both the “spirits in prison”, and the content of Christ’s preaching.
The Odes of Solomon, the Son of David, are ended with the following exquisite verses.
1 I stretched out my hands and approached my Lord:
2 For the stretching of my hands is His sign:
3 My expansion is the outspread tree which was set up on the way of the Righteous One.
4 And I became of no account to those who did not take hold of me; andI shall be with those who love me.
5 All my persecutors are dead; and they sought after me who hoped in me, because I was alive:
6 And I rose up and am with them; and I will speak by their mouths.
7 For they have despised those who persecuted them;
8 And I lifted up over them the yoke of my love;
9 Like the arm of the bridegroom over the bride, So was my yoke over those that know me: And as the couch that is spread in the house of the bridegroom and bride,
12 So is my love over those that believe in me.
13 And I was not rejected though I was reckoned to be so.
14 I did not perish, though they devised it against me.
15 Sheol saw me and was made miserable: Death cast me up, and many along with me.
17 I had gall and bitterness, and I went down with him to the utmost of his depth:
18 And the feet and the head he let go, for they were not able to endure my face:
19 And I made a congregation of living men amongst his dead men, and I spake with them by living lips:
20 Because my word shall not be void:
21 And those who had died ran towards me: and they cried and said, Son of God, have pity on us, and do with us according to thy kindness,
22 And bring us out from the bonds of darkness: and open to us the door by which we shall come out to thee.
23 For we see that our death has not touched thee.
24 Let us also be redeemed with thee: for thou art our Redeemer.
25 And I heard their voice; and my name I sealed upon their heads:
26 For they are free men and they are mine. Hallelujah.
This last phrase sums up the soteriological [salvific] theology contained within the description of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. We were all in bondage to sin, death, and the devil; Christ has broken our chains, destroyed the gates of hell, and declares to all: “They are free men and they are mine. Hallelujah.”
An interesting patristic passage comes to us by way of Eusebius, in “The Story Concerning the King of Edessa.” King Agbar of Edessa[viii] was ill with some form of wasting disease. Hearing of Jesus, the King wrote and besought Jesus to come and heal him. Jesus sent King Agbar a letter saying one of his disciples would come and heal his sicknesses and bring salvation to his people. This was accomplished after the resurrection of Christ when Thomas sent Thaddeus (one of the seventy) to Edessa. Thomas not only healed King Agbar and a great many others, but preached the following Gospel to them, which included a description of Christ’s descent into Hades:
Because I have been sent to preach the word of God, assemble me tomorrow all the people of thy city, and I will preach before them, and sow amongst them the word of life; and will tell them about the coming of Christ, how it took place; and about His mission, for what purpose he was sent by His Father; and about His power and His deeds, and about the mysteries which He spake in the world, and by what power He wrought these things, and about His new preaching, and about His abasement and His humiliation, and how He humbled and emptied and abased Himself, and was crucified, and descended to Hades, and broke through the enclosure which had never been broken through before, and raised up the dead, and descended alone, and ascended with a great multitude to His Father.[ix]
The fact that the Harrowing of Hell featured prominently in the Apocryphal texts, Christian poetry, and patristics testifies to the early origins of this Christian doctrine. And the fact that this doctrine is supported from the Old Testament, including both canonical and so-called Apocryphal texts, suggests the loss of something vital to the Gospel when the Apocrypha were separated from the rest of the Old Testament.
[i] We won’t even discuss the problematic phrase: “even baptism doth also now save us”.
[ii] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 17)
[iii] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 19)
[iv] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 20-29)
[v] (St Melito of Sardis 1989, 20-23; 32-34)
[vi] (Platt 2007, 205)
[vii] See Odes 17, 22, 24, and 42.
[viii] Edessa was the capital city of Osreone, which was part of the Syriac empire. The country of Osreone is roughly located in the border area of Turkey and Syria; the city of Edessa is located in modern-day Turkey, and known as Şanlıurfa (or colloquially as Urfa).
[ix] (Schaff, ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age 2005, 1098)
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Christ the Conqueror of Hell. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009.
Platt, Rutherford H. The Forgotten Books of Eden. Sioux Falls: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2007.
Schaff, Philip. ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.
St Melito of Sardis. “On Pascha.” Edited by Jr. James T. Dennison. KERUX: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching (Kerux, Inc.) 4, no. 1 (1989): 5-35.