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In the context of Christian theology, the Harrowing of Hell (Latin: Descensus Christi ad Inferos, "the descent of Christ into hell") is the Old English and Middle English term for the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell (or Hades) between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world (excluding the damned). After his death, the soul of Jesus was supposed to have descended into the realm of the dead, which the Apostles' Creed calls "hell" in the old English usage. In some Christian theologies, it is believed that Jesus's soul remained united to the divinity during this time. The realm into which Jesus descended is called Sheol or Limbo by some Christian theologians to distinguish it from the hell of the damned.
This nearly-extinct term in Christian theology is referenced in the Apostles' Creed and the Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult) which state that Jesus Christ "descended into Hell". However, there are no explicit New Testament references to Christ having descended to the underworld (although mention is made in 1 Peter 3:19–20 of Jesus preaching to "the imprisoned spirits"). Its near-absence in Scripture has given rise to controversy and differing interpretations. It is unclear how it became part of the Apostles' Creed.
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the story first appears clearly in the Gospel of Nicodemus, written by a Roman praetorian named Ananias circa 425 AD, in the section called the Acts of Pilate, which also appears separately at earlier dates within the Acts of Peter and Paul. The descent into hell had been related in Old English poems connected with the names of Caedmon and Cynewulf. It is subsequently repeated in Aelfric's homilies c. 1000 AD, which is the first known inclusion of the word "harrowing". Middle English dramatic literature contains the fullest and most dramatic development of the subject.
As an image in Christian art, the harrowing is also known as the Anastasis (a Greek word for "resurrection"), considered a creation of Byzantine culture and first appearing in the West in the early 8th century.
The Greek wording in the Apostles' Creed is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, ("katelthonta eis ta katôtata"), and in Latin descendit ad inferos. The Greek τὰ κατώτατα (ta katôtata,"the lowest") and the Latin inferos ("those below") may also be translated as "underworld", "netherworld", or "abode of the dead."
The word "harrow" comes from the Old English hergian meaning to harry or despoil and is seen in the homilies of Aelfric, c. 1000. The term Harrowing of Hell refers not merely to the idea that Christ descended into Hell, as in the Creed, but to the rich tradition that developed later, asserting that he triumphed over inferos, releasing Hell's captives, particularly Adam and Eve, and the righteous men and women of the Old Testament period.
The term and concept of Hades has been used in Classical mythology to mean "the underworld inhabited by departed souls" and the god Pluto being its ruler. The New Testament has used the term Hades to refer to the abode or state of the dead. In some places it seems to represent a neutral place where the dead awaited the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Several passages from the New Testament have been taken by some to imply that Christ descended into this realm of the dead to bring the righteous ones to Heaven. Other New Testament passages imply it is a place of torment for the unrighteous, leading to speculation that it may be divided into two very different sections.
In the New King James version of the New Testament, there are 11 references to Hades:
Although these verses do not contain the word "Hades", theologians have concluded that comparable terms are used as synonyms:
The Harrowing of Hell was taught by theologians of the early church: St Melito of Sardis (died c. 180) Homily on the Passion; Tertullian (A Treatise on the Soul, 55), Hippolytus (Treatise on Christ and Anti-Christ) Origen (Against Celsus, 2:43), and, later, St Ambrose (died 397) all wrote of the Harrowing of Hell. The early heretic Marcion and his followers also discussed the Harrowing of Hell, as mentioned by Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Epiphanius.
The Gospel of Matthew relates that immediately after Christ died, the earth shook, there was a Crucifixion darkness and eclipse, the veil in the Temple was torn in two, and many people rose from the dead and walked about in Jerusalem and were seen by many people there. According to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, the Harrowing of Hell was foreshadowed by Christ's raising of Lazarus from the dead prior to his own crucifixion. The hymns proper to the weekend suggest that as he did on earth, John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in Hell by prophesying to the spirits held there that Christ would soon save them.
In the Acts of Pilate—usually incorporated with the widely read medieval Gospel of Nicodemus—texts built around an original that might have been as old as the 3rd century AD with many improvements and embroidered interpolations, chapters 17 to 27 are called the Decensus Christi ad Inferos. They contain a dramatic dialogue between Hades and prince Satan, and the entry of the King of Glory, imagined as from within Tartarus (see link below). The richest, most circumstantial accounts of the Harrowing of Hell are found in medieval dramatic literature, such as the four great cycles of English mystery plays which each devote a separate scene to depict it, or in passing references in Dante's Inferno. The subject is found also in the Cornish mystery plays and the York and Wakefield cycles. These medieval versions of the story do not derive from the bare suggestion made in the Epistle ascribed to Peter, but come from the Gospel of Nicodemus. See "The Apocryphal New Testament" edited by Prof JK Elliott 1993 ISBN 0-19-826182-9 pp164
The Old Testament view of the afterlife was that all people, whether righteous or unrighteous, went to Sheol when they died. No Hebrew figure ever descended into Sheol and returned, although an apparition of the recently deceased Samuel briefly appeared to Saul when summoned by the Witch of Endor. Several works from the Second Temple period elaborate the concept of Sheol, dividing it into sections based on the righteousness or unrighteousness of those who have died.
The New Testament maintains a distinction between Sheol, the common "place of the dead", and the eternal destiny of those condemned at the Final Judgment, variously described as Gehenna, "the outer darkness," or a lake of eternal fire. Modern English translations of the Bible maintain this distinction (e.g. by translating Sheol as "the Pit" and Gehenna as "Hell"), but the influential King James Version used the word "hell" to translate both concepts.
The Hellenistic views of heroic descent into the Underworld and successful return follow traditions that are far older than the mystery religions popular at the time of Christ. The Epic of Gilgamesh includes such a scene, and it appears also in Odyssey XI. Writing shortly before the birth of Jesus, Vergil included it in the Aeneid. What little we know of the worship in mystery religions such as the Eleusinian Mysteries and Mithraism suggests that a ritual death and rebirth of the initiate was an important part of their liturgy. Again, this has earlier parallels, in particular with the worship of Osiris. The ancient homily on The Lord's Descent into Hell may mirror these traditions by referring to baptism as a symbolic death and rebirth. (cf. Colossians 2:9–15) Or, these traditions of Mithraism may be drawn from early Christian homilies.
There is an ancient homily on the subject, of unknown authorship, usually entitled The Lord's Descent into Hell that is the second reading at Office of Readings on Holy Saturday in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "By the expression 'He descended into Hell', the Apostles' Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil 'who has the power of death' (Hebrews 2:14). In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened Heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him."
As the Catechism says, the word "Hell"—from the Norse, Hel; in Latin, infernus, infernum, inferi; in Greek, ᾍδης (Hades); in Hebrew, שאול (Sheol)—is used in Scripture and the Apostles' Creed to refer to the abode of all the dead, whether righteous or evil, unless or until they are admitted to Heaven (CCC 633). This abode of the dead is the "Hell" into which the Creed says Christ descended. His death freed from exclusion from Heaven the just who had gone before him: "It is precisely these holy souls who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into Hell", the Catechism states (CCC 633), echoing the words of the Roman Catechism, 1,6,3. His death was of no avail to the damned.
Conceptualization of the abode of the dead as a place, though possible and customary, is not obligatory (Church documents, such as catechisms, speak of a "state or place"). Some maintain that Christ did not go to the place of the damned, which is what is generally understood today by the word "Hell". For instance, Thomas Aquinas taught that Christ did not descend into the "Hell of the lost" in his essence, but only by the effect of his death, through which "he put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory he gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in Hell solely on account of original sin, he shed the light of glory everlasting."
While some maintain that Christ merely descended into the "limbo of the fathers", others, notably theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (inspired by the visions of Adrienne von Speyr), maintain that it was more than this and that the descent involved suffering by Jesus. Since both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have lauded the theology of Balthasar in general, and because some do not see a precise doctrinal position of the Church on this point, some maintain that this is a matter on which differences and theological speculation are permissible without transgressing the limits of orthodoxy. However, Balthasar's point here has been forcefully condemned by conservative Catholic outlets.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Harrowing of Hades is celebrated annually on Holy and Great Saturday, during the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil. At the beginning of the service, the hangings in the church and the vestments worn by the clergy are all somber Lenten colours (usually purple or black). Then, just before the Gospel reading, the liturgical colors are changed white and the deacon performs a censing, and the priest strews laurel leaves around the church, symbolizing the broken gates of hell; this is done in celebration of the harrowing of Hades then taking place, and in anticipation of Christ's imminent resurrection.
The Harrowing of Hades is generally more common and prominent in Orthodox iconography compared to the Western tradition. It is the traditional icon for Holy Saturday, and is used during the Paschal season and on Sundays throughout the year.
The traditional Eastern Orthodox icon of the Resurrection of Jesus does not depict simply the physical act of Jesus's coming out of the Tomb, but rather it depicts what Orthodox Christians believe to be the spiritual reality of what his Death and Resurrection accomplished.
The icon shows Jesus, vested in white and gold to symbolize his divine majesty, standing on the brazen gates of Hades (also called the "Doors of Death"), which are broken and have fallen in the form of a cross, illustrating the belief that by his death on the cross, Jesus trampled down death (see Paschal troparion). He is holding Adam and Eve and pulling them up out of Hades. Traditionally, he is not shown holding them by the hands, but by their wrists, to illustrate the theological teaching that mankind could not pull himself out of his ancestral sin, but that it could come about only by the work (energia) of God. Jesus is surrounded by various righteous figures from the Old Testament (Abraham, David, etc.); the bottom of the icon depicts Hades as a chasm of darkness, often with various pieces of broken locks and chains strewn about. Quite frequently, one or two figures are shown in the darkness, bound in chains, who are generally identified as personifications of Death and/or the Devil.
Martin Luther, in a sermon delivered in Torgau in 1533, stated that Christ descended into Hell.
The Formula of Concord (a Lutheran confession) states, "we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power." (Solid Declaration, Art. IX)
Many attempts were made following Luther's death to systematize his theology of the descensus, whether Christ descended in victory or humiliation. For Luther, however, the defeat or "humiliation" of Christ is never fully separable from His victorious glorification. Some argued that Christ's suffering was completed with His words from the cross, "It is finished." Luther himself, when pressed to elaborate on the question of whether Christ descended to Hell in humiliation or victory responded, "It is enough to preach the article to the laypeople as they have learned to know it in the past from the stained glass and other sources."
John Calvin expressed his concern that many Christians "have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God's judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God." Calvin's conclusion is that "Christ's descent into Hell was necessary for Christians' atonement, because Christ did in fact endure the penalty for the sins of the redeemed."
The Reformed interpret the phrase "he descended into Hell" as referring to Christ's pain and humiliation prior to his death, and that this humiliation had a spiritual dimension as part of God's judgement upon the sin which he bore on behalf of Christians. The doctrine of Christ's humiliation is also meant to assure believers that Christ has redeemed them from the pain and suffering of God's judgment on sin.
The Harrowing of Hell has been a unique and important doctrine among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its founding in 1830 by Joseph Smith, although members of the church ("Mormons") usually call it by other terms, such as "Christ's visit to the spirit world." Like Christian exegetes distinguishing between Sheol and Gehenna, Latter-day Saints distinguish between the realm of departed spirits (the "spirit world") and the portion (or state) of the wicked ("spirit prison"). The portion or state of the righteous is often referred to as "paradise".
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Latter-day Saint beliefs regarding the Harrowing of Hell is their view on the purpose of it, both for the just and the wicked. Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the Church, explained in what is now a canonized revelation, that when Christ died, "there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, . . . rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand. They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death" (D&C 138:12, 15-16).
In the Latter-Day Saint view, while Christ announced freedom from physical death to the just, he had another purpose in descending to Hell regarding the wicked. "The Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; but behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces…and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead . . . to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets" (D&C 138:29-30, 32). From the Latter-day Saint viewpoint, the rescue of spirits was not a one-time event but an ongoing process that still continues. (D&C 138) (1 Peter 4:6). This concept goes hand-in-hand with the doctrine of baptism for the dead, which is based on the LDS belief that those who choose to accept the gospel in the spirit world must still receive the saving ordinances in order to dwell in the kingdom of God (Mark 16:16, John 3:5, 1 Pet 3:21). These baptisms and other ordinances are performed in LDS temples, wherein a church member is baptized vicariously, or in behalf of, those who died without being baptized by proper authority. The recipients in the spirit world then have the opportunity to accept or reject this baptism.
A number of Christians reject the doctrine of the "harrowing of hell", claiming that 'there is scant scriptural evidence for [it], and that Jesus's own words contradict it'. John Piper, for example, says 'there is no textual [i.e., Biblical] basis for believing that Christ descended into hell', and, therefore, Piper does not say the "he descended into hell" phrase when reciting the Apostles' Creed. Wayne Grudem also skips the phrase when reciting the Creed; he says that the 'single argument in...favor [of the "harrowing of hell" clause in the Creed] seems to be that it has been around so long....But an old mistake is still a mistake'. In his book Raised with Christ, Pentecostal Adrian Warnock agrees with Grudem, commenting, 'Despite some translations of an ancient creed [i.e., the Apostles' Creed], which suggest that Jesus..."descended into hell," there is no biblical evidence to suggest that he actually did so.
The above views share the traditional Christian belief in the immortality of the soul. The mortalist view of the intermediate state requires an alternative view of the Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31, taking a view of the New Testament use of Hell as equivalent to use of Hades in the Septuagint and therefore to Sheol in the Old Testament. William Tyndale and Martin Bucer of Strassburg argued that Hades in Acts 2 was merely a metaphor for the grave. Other reformers Christopher Carlisle and Walter Deloenus in London, argued for the article to be dropped from the creed. The Harrowing of Hell was a major scene in traditional depictions of Christ's life avoided by John Milton due to his mortalist views. Mortalist interpretations of the Acts 2 statements of Christ being in Hades are also found among later Anglicans such as E. W. Bullinger.
While those holding mortalist views on the soul would agree on the "harrowing of hell" concerning souls, that there were no conscious dead for Christ to literally visit, the question of whether Christ himself was also dead, unconscious, brings different answers:
Of the three days, Christ says "I was dead" (Greek egenomen nekros ἐγενόμην νεκρὸς, Latin fui mortuus).[Revelation 1:18]
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Parallels also exist in Jewish literature, but referencing legends of Enoch and Abraham's harrowings of the underworld, not related to Christian themes. These have been updated in Isaac Leib Peretz's short story Neilah in Gehenna, a Jewish hazzan descends to Hell and uses his unique voice to bring about the repentance and liberation of the souls imprisoned there.
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