The Harrowing of Hell: A Holy Saturday Meditation

For Holy Saturday, parts of an older post about the Easter icons in the Orthodox Church:

Where is Jesus on Holy Saturday?

The answer from the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
born of the Virgin Mary.
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come again to judge the living and the dead...
Orthodox Easter icons do not portray the empty tomb, the typical Easter scene within Western Christianity. Rather, the Easter icons of the Orthodox church depict the event known as the harrowing of hell.

The harrowing of hell refers to the events between Jesus' death and his resurrection. Specifically, the early church believed that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. Jesus breaks down the doors of hell and leads the souls of the lost into heaven.

This is an obscure teaching in the Western church, but the bible hints at these events:
1 Peter 3.18-20a
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...

1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Ephesians 4.8-10
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
This belief that Christ descended into hell is also captured in Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:
Acts 2.27, 31
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.

Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.
In the Easter icons of the Orthodox church you see two common motifs. First, if you look at the three icons presented here, you see Christ standing over the broken gates of hell. In the second icon you also see two angels binding Satan in the pit of hell. In the top icon you see Satan crushed under the gates of hell.

Next, we see Christ pulling two figures up out of hell. This is Adam and Eve, imprisoned in hell since their deaths. Imprisoned, along with all humanity, due to sin. Eve is generally depicted in a red robe.

Beyond iconography, the harrowing of hell is also the dominant symbol of Orthodox Easter liturgies. Again, in Western churches the empty tomb is what you will see depicted on Easter Sunday. But Orthodox services recreate the harrowing of hell. Specifically, the priest exits the church with a cross. The sanctuary is immersed in darkness and the doors are closed. The priest then knocks on the door and proclaims, "Open the doors to the Lord of the powers, the king of glory." Inside the church the people make a great noise of rattling chains which conveys the resistance of hell to the coming of Christ. Eventually, the doors are opened up, the cross enters, and the church is lit and filled with incense.

By focusing on the harrowing of hell the Orthodox shift the focus of Passion Week. For Protestants the focus of salvation is on the death of Jesus and penal substitutionary atonement. We are saved on Good Friday. For the Orthodox the emphasis is on the resurrection of Jesus and the defeat of death, the Christus Victor themes. We are saved on Easter Sunday. The keys of death and Hades have been taken away from Satan and given over to Jesus:
Revelation 1.12-13, 17-18
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest...When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades."

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16 thoughts on “The Harrowing of Hell: A Holy Saturday Meditation”

  1. I find this to be a comforting thought...that Christ descended into hell to rescue the souls imprisoned there.

    During those periods of my (earthly) life which felt altogether "hellish" to me, it gave me hope to believe that God would not and could not abandon me in those dark, despairing places.

    Psalm 139 is a favorite Scripture of mine.  Verses 7 and 8 come to mind, in relation to this post:

    "Where could I go from Your Spirit?  Or where could I flee from Your presence?

     If I ascend up into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (the place of the dead), behold, You are there."  ~Amplified Bible.


  2. I always took "he descended' (in Phil. 2) to refer to the incarnation, but I definitely haven't studied it - just my presumption from the surface of the text.

    I love the imagery with the cross coming into darkness. If only I could convince my own church to take part.

  3. A helpful reminder, Richard, of the multidimensionality of salvation. Hebrews 11.39 hints that those down through history who were commended for their faith but did not receive the promise have now, with us, received it. For the western pre-reformation tradition, you could look at Langland's "The Vision of Piers Plowman", passus 18 lines 110 to the end; echoes can be found in medieval mystery play texts. Lines 375f make me rejoice to remember that by his incarnation, taking 'my' flesh, Christ makes all flesh his brothers and sisters, and mine - for whom (all of us, down through time) he wins salvation.

  4. Richard,

    Little did I know that as a child when I sang "Up from the gravy rose," that the line, "He arose a victor from the dark domain," describes Christus Victor and the Harrowing of Hell.  

    Blessings this Holy Saturday!

  5. So true! I loved that song. A few weeks ago I had the guys in the prison study sing it. They'd never heard it before. Songs like that bring back fond memories of my childhood, sitting with about 30 people in my small church on Sunday nights doing a song request service, calling out numbers from the hymnal and singing for an hour or so.

  6. Richard, I appreciate your ongoing commitment to discuss these views from Orthodoxy. There are too many precious insights that we've lost sight of in the Protestant traditions.

  7. What about those before Christ or his return who have died? Soterology has some big questions. Keep on stretching our minds, friend and brother! Keep on using scripture, Christian art and texts and psychology and Greek Orthodoxy. Just enough new stuff to stretch our minds a little, maybe a lot!

  8. Are you sure he wasn't talking about his body going into the grave, "sheol"?
    Luke 23:43 "Jesus answered him"I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise"".
    Doesn't sound like hell to me?

  9. This would go good with the idea of universalism. I wrote this awhile back on why Matthew 25:46 isn't refering to eternal concious suffering:

  10. The harrowing of hell is something that's fascinated me since the first time I heard about it (which was quite a shock to me, coming from a CoC and being unfamiliar even with creeds). I just finished up Crossan and Borg's 'The Last Week,' which devoted its chapter on Holy Saturday to this, and they make the connection with Matthew 27:52-53, which I thought was interesting and made sense. It's been my experience that we tend to skip that section because we just don't know what to do with it. 

  11. If any of Richard's blog readers are interested, Orthodox Holy Week is this week and the Paschal (Easter) service is this coming weekend (the Eastern/Western calendars do not often coincide). The Paschal service is usually held on Saturday night about 10pm. If you are interested, I would encourage you to go to the Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening services.  Scripture is the focal point but they are used in a way that is unlike anything you could imagine.

  12. Hi Cole,
    I am researching the area of prayer for the dead as over the last 8 years the Lord through His Holy Spirit has impressed on my the importance of dong this through scripture, dreams and visions. I like your comments which echo my own sentiments of the Unconditional Love of God, ie He is out side of time. Would you OK with me using what you have written here with a reference to yourself if you wish. If so perhaps I could put the county and country that you are from, and title if you have one.
    God Bless,
    Mary Elms

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