The Divine Comedy: Week 7, The Harrowing of Hell

Over the last two weeks we talked about how, in Dante, Limbo holds unbaptized righteous persons. This includes the Old Testament saints. But when Virgil and the Pilgrim visit Limbo only virtuous pagans are there. Where have the others gone?

The answer involves the harrowing of hell.

The harrowing of hell refers to the events between Jesus' death and 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. The harrowing of hell continues to be an important doctrine to the Eastern Orthodox church and features predominately in their Easter observances and iconography. And as I write about in The Slavery of Death, the harrowing of hell is also a key notion in Christus Victory atonement theology, which places more emphasis on Jesus' resurrection than his death on the cross.

Is the harrowing of hell in the Bible? It's hinted at in a few passages:
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.)
The belief that Christ descended into hell is also captured in Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 (v. 27, 31).

The harrowing of hell is also mentioned in 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...
The harrowing of hell shows up in many places in The Divine Comedy, various shades remembering the time when Christ came down, shaking the place, causing damage, and rescuing captives. I'm sure it was an exciting moment in the history of hell! We first encounter the harrowing of hell in Canto 4. Vigil was a new arrival in Limbo when it happened, and he gives first hand testimony about what he witnessed when Christ came to hell to set free the Old Testament saints:
...."I was a novice in this place
when I saw a mighty lord descend to us
who wore the sign of victory as his crown.

He took from us the shade of our first parent,
of Abel, his good son, of Noah, too,
and of obedient Moses, who made the laws;

Abram, the Patriarch, David the King,
Israel with his father and his children,
with Rachel, who he worked so hard to win;

and many more he chose for blessedness;
and you should know. before these souls were taken,
no human soul had ever reached salvation."

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply