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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

The Harrowing of Hell

Fr. Scott A. Haynes


Byzantine Icon of the Harrowing of Hell


In the Apostles’ Creed we profess that Christ “descended into Hell.” For those unfamiliar, the Harrowing of Hell is an ancient tradition wherein, in the interim between Good Friday afternoon and Easter morning, Our Lord stormed the Gates of Hell and released those who had been there but were destined for Heaven.  

Harrowing of Hell, ‘Winchester Psalter’ or ‘Psalter of Henry of Blois’

 Since salvation can only come through Christ Jesus, prior to His Incarnation none could have achieved salvation and found their eternal home in Heaven.  Upon Christ’s death, He was able to go into Hell and release those who had been waiting for His coming.

Christ's Descent into Limbo, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1510

Would this tradition suggest that all of the Patriarchs and Prophets would have been in Hell waiting for Jesus’ arrival?  Were they burning in a lake of fire for a few hundred years patiently awaiting Easter morning?  Not quite.  The Greeks refer to the place of the dead as Hades.  The Romans translated the words as Infernum which we render as “Hell.”  

Master of the Osservanza (Italian, active ca. 1425-80), The Descent into Limbo, ca. 1445. 

In ancient Judaism there was no distinction between where the good people went and where the bad people went when they died.  According to the Jews, once they died, everybody went to Sheol.  These words are often used interchangeably in translations, but that might not be fair.  There came to be a distinction prior to the reconstruction of the Temple between the Sheol to which everyone went and the nicer neighborhood which was called “Abraham’s Bosom.”   


Abraham’s Bosom was a place which reflected rest and comfort as a child climbing upon their father’s lap when they were weary.  Since, of course, Abraham was the father of all of the Jews, any Jew resting in the Bosom of Abraham would be resting on their father’s lap.  

We see this idea in the New Testament in St. Luke’s Gospel when Our Lord tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  (16:19:31)  Clearly, when Lazarus dies he is resting peacefully in the comfort of his Father Abraham, whereas the Rich Man is suffering in the “place of torment.” 

Thus, while the Patriarchs and Prophets would have been in Sheol, which is sometimes translated as Hell, it is not right to think of them roasting in a lake of fire. 

The Harrowing of Hell, depicted in the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry.

14th-century illuminated manuscript.


Our Lord alludes to His Harrowing of Hell in St. John’s Gospel when He proclaimed, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. (5:25)  Similarly, St. Peter makes repeated mention of Christ's Harrowing of Hell in his first epistle when he writes,

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine long suffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.” (3:18-20)


Christ leads Adam by the hand, depicted in the Vaux Passional, c. 1504

And again,

“For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (4:6)

And finally, St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians (4:7-10),

“But to everyone of us is given the grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ. Wherefore He saith: Ascending on high, He led captivity captive; He gave gifts to men. Now that He ascended, what is it, but because He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.” (4:7-10).


When Jesus arrives, He shatters the gates and enters. He seizes Satan and binds him in iron chains, then consigning him into Hades’s until the second coming. Jesus next turns his attention to the patriarchs. He raises up Adam, along with all the prophets and the saints. Together, they all depart up out of Hades, and ascend into Paradise. After His death, Our Lord “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient.”  The dead heard the Voice of God, and those who did hear lived as Our Lord took hostages out of Hell and “led captivity captive,” taking those who were prisoners into the paradise of eternal life in Heaven. 


Before his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ grants salvation to souls by the Harrowing of Hell.  Fresco, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430s

Christ's Harrowing of Hell is recalled on Holy Saturday, this day that lies between Good Friday and Pascha (Easter).  There is tremendous variety in icons representing the event in the life of Christ.  Most often, Christ is removing a stone from off of a tomb and leading out Adam and Eve as well as the various Patriarchs and Prophets. Thanks be to God, God prepared a way that even those born before true salvation could be offered could hear the Gospel preached.  This is likely what Jesus meant when he told the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”  (St. John 8:56)


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