The Harrowing of Hell

On Sunday it was my pleasure to teach the Abundant Journey class at Highland as they prepare for Easter. During the class I brought in some observations about the Orthodox Easter icons.

Interestingly, Orthodox Easter icons do not portray the empty tomb which is the typical representation in 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. For example:

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 (v. 27, 31). Consequently, the early Apostle's Creed had the, eventually controversial, mention of the descent into hell:

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 Nicene Creed, which followed the Apostle's Creed, removed the mention of the decent into hell.

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 (hell is the dark pit at the bottom of each icon; in the first icon we even see two angels in the pit binding Satan). 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. Which is pretty cool. I would have liked an Easter service like this when I was a kid.

The Orthodox focus on the harrowing of hell helps fill in what is often left out of the Western focus on the empty tomb. That is, the empty tomb isn't very theological. Yes, it can be, but it needs some interpretation. What, exactly, is going on during Easter? What does the empty tomb signify?

The harrowing of hell gives us one answer. Specifically, we see Christ as the new Adam, rescuing humanity from its past and starting history anew. Here are some observations along these lines from Rowan Williams in his book The Indwelling of Light:

"The resurrection, then, has to do with the creation of the new humanity, where resentment and hostility are 'unfrozen'..."

"As [Christ's] hand grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, Jesus goes back to embrace the first imaginable moment of rebellion and false direction in human life...we are reminded that he goes fully into the depths of human agony. He reaches back to and beyond where human memory begins: 'Adam and Eve' stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal of God began--not a moment we can date in ordinary history, any more than we can date in the history of each one of us where we began to forget God. But we are always dealing with the after-effects of that moment, both as a human race and as particular persons. The icon declares that wherever that lost moment is or was, Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future..."

"The resurrection, remember, is an introduction--to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbors, to our physical world."

"The Christ of this icon, standing on the bridge over darkness and emptiness, moving into the heart of human longing and incompletion, brings into that place the mystery out of which his life streams, represented in the mandorla against which his figure is set. The locked gates of death, the frozen lives cut short, these are overcome in the act of new creation which we are witnessing."

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18 thoughts on “The Harrowing of Hell”

  1. The Harrowing of Hell is an extremely illuminating bit of doctrine we in the West desperately need to recover. Orthodox Easter gets it right in my opinion, having participated in the Easter Vigil in Istanbul with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

    I wrote a short story a while back which was to be a telling of the gospel in a very alternate version, I did it via the lens of the Harrowing of Hell.

  2. 1 Peter 4.6
    For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead,

    Are you using the NIV here, Richard? I think their translation here is a cheat; the "now" doesn't occur in the Greek (as they admit in a note to my NIV Study Bible). They add it to rule out that the preaching was done to those who were dead when they were preached to, and make it instead say that it was done to people who are dead at the time of the writing of I Peter. If you remove the word "now," the English becomes ambiguous on that point. My sources tell me the Greek is similarly ambiguous.

  3. Aric,
    having participated in the Easter Vigil in Istanbul with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

    Wow, that must have been an amazing experience.

    Yes, it was the NIV. I study out of the NRSV but can't find that online so I tend to copy and paste from an online database which is defaulted with the NIV.

    The NRSV converges on your reading: "the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead..."

  4. A few years ago the NYC Met. Museum of Art had a magnificent exhibit on Orthodox icons. Some of which were loaned for the first time in centuries. It was such a large, rich and over-whelming exhibit it took me three separate visits to begin to absorb it. On each a goodly portion of the attendees were in fact the faithful. The exhibit is long gone but you can view some of it online at the Met's site on past special exhibits. A URL for this particular one is:
    Worth your time indeed though not as good as the physical presence.

  5. The NRSV is among the translations you can get on-line through the Christian Classic Ethereal Library's World Wide Study Bible here:

    The format might not be the best for copying & pasting, though, especially if you're looking to c&p long, multi-verse, passages.

  6. I should have added: to use that on-line study Bible, you first go to the book and then the chapter you want to look up, and then you're given several options, including the NRSV, for what translation you'd like to see.

  7. Thank you for this Rirchard.
    I really enjoyed reading it, and I think that the West understand the east in many of these regards

  8. The "harrowing of hell" is more in keeping with the real translation of "hell" in the OT, "sheol".Thanks for giving us westerners a look into this eastern Easter tradition.

  9. I wouldn't say the concept is quite as lost to western tradition as all that -- I first heard about it from Catholics. Actually there was a recent blog post showing a bunch of paintings of the HoH in western art, showing hell as a dragon forced to vomit up the damned.

  10. The Gospel of Peter also elaborates on the harrowing with a macabre scene:

    [35] But in the night in which the Lord's day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; [36] and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. [37] But that stone which had been thrust against the door, having rolled by itself, went a distance off the side; and the sepulcher opened, and both the young men entered. [38] And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). [39] And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, [40] and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens. [41] And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, 'Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?' [42] And an obeisance was heard from the cross, 'Yes.'

    from Peter Kirby's Early Christian Writings site:

  11. dblwyo, danny, and don,
    Thanks. Given the positive feedback here I think I might throw in a post now and then about different icons and their interpretation.

    keith and andrew,
    Thanks for the NRSV links.

    You're right, the tradition isn't an exclusively Eastern one. The difference is mainly in how prominent the harrowing is during Easter in the Orthodox tradition.

    Very interesting quote. Your knowledge of the gnostic writings never ceases to amaze me.

  12. Richard, that would be cool. The first time one sees some of those for real is staggering. And some of them were in the Sinai for centuries.

    But the thing you and the rest of you readers would have appreciated is the reactions of the faithful. If it warn't the Met I thought many would have been on their knees.

  13. I didn't know about this and it's fascinating - very Homerian (Homeresque?). It makes sense that this refers to the 'land of the dead' and not 'land of the unsaved' - which in turn makes it clear why church Bigwigs may have wanted to spin it to the latter. It also puts me in mind of the danse macabre murals one sees in some eastern churches/cemeteries.
    I may spend my whole morning on this blog and count it as highly productive.

  14. How crucial all this is as I learned in my times of worship in the Celtic Orthodox Church. Brought up as a High Church Anglican I worship now with the Catholic Church in Chiang Mai Northern Thailand. This ancient understanding is crucial in our understanding in praying for the Lost Souls (In Purgatory if you are a Catholic) something nearly lost altogether in the reformation in my native England.I do have an understanding since my ministry of healing (His power) includes praying for the 'dead' who are simply in eternity.

  15.  I dunno if you're still around, but I would really like to read that short story! If you don't want to open your whole blog to me could you maybe email me?

  16.  Wow. A blast from the past. That blog no longer exists, but I snuck that story up over here for you. I would write some of it differently now, but I hope you enjoy.

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