Harrowing of Hell

From New World Encyclopedia
The Harrowing of Hell, depicted in the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, fourteenth century illuminated manuscript

The Harrowing of Hell is a doctrine in Christian theology, derived from biblical exegesis and found in the Apostles' Creed and the Athanasian Creed, which states that Jesus descended into Hell before being resurrected in order to visit the realm of the dead to save those who came before his earthly ministry. In this way, the taint of Original Sin was remedied for the dead, which allowed Jesus to defeat Satan and throw open the doors of Hades for all eternity, allowing the souls of the faithful to ascend to Heaven.

The "Harrowing of Hell" doctrine was especially popular among the laity, as it provided a concrete image of salvation that was easily encapsulated in religious iconography (which was often their only point of entry into such discourse). It also provided a popular understanding of the atonement (the process of salvation) in the early Church.

The doctrine has a twofold usage: first, it refers to the idea that Christ descended into Hell, as expressed in the Creeds, and, secondly, it includes the rich tradition that developed in later centuries, asserting that he triumphed over inferos, releasing Hell's captives, particularly Adam and Eve, and the righteous men and women whose stories are recorded in the Septuagint. However, these medieval versions come more from the Gospel of Nicodemus.

In modern times, the Harrowing of Hell doctrine has been termed the most controversial phrase in the Apostle's Creed and has been removed from some modern versions and translations.[1]


The term, "Harrowing of Hell" is an English rendering of the original Greek wording found in the Apostles' Creed (κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, ("katelthonta eis ta katôtata"); Latin, descendit ad inferos). The Greek τὰ κατώτατα ("the lowest") and the Latin inferos ("those below") may also be translated as "underworld," "netherworld," or as "abode of the dead." Thus, sometimes this phrase is translated as "descended to the dead." The first use of the English "harrowing" in this context is in homilies of Aelfric, c. 1000. Harrow is a by-form of harry, a military term meaning to "make predatory raids or incursions."[2]

Biblical sources

"Jesus in Limbo" by Domenico Beccafumi

The doctrine is inferred from the interpretations of several biblical passages:

  • Acts 2:27 and 2:31 declare in effect that Hades ("place of the dead") could not hold the crucified Christ.
  • Two passages of 1 Peter, principally, have been used as a basis for the ancient doctrine:
  • 1 Peter 3:19-20 says that Jesus "went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah…" (NRSV).
  • 1 Peter 4:6 says that the gospel was "proclaimed even to the dead…" (NRSV).

Other references in the Bible have also been interpreted by some to allude to the Harrowing of Hell such as:

  • 2 Corinthians 2:14, "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him" (NRSV).
  • Zachariah 9:11 refers to prisoners in a waterless pit. "As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water." The verses' reference to captives has been presented as a reflection of Yahweh's captives of the enemy in Psalm 68:17–18: "God's chariots were myriad, thousands upon thousands; from Sinai the Lord entered the holy place. You went up to its lofty height; you took captives, received slaves as tribute. No rebels can live in the presence of God."
  • Isaiah 24:21-22 also refers to spirits in prison, reminiscent of Peter's account of a visitation to spirits in prison: "And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth. And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited."


Early Conceptions of the afterlife

Christ leads the patriarchs from Hell to Paradise, by Bartolomeo Bertejo, Spanish, ca 1480: Methuselah, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and Adam and Eve lead the procession of the righteous behind Christ.

The Hebrew Bible affirms that Job and other righteous men went to Sheol when they died, as did David and the other psalmists. 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. Parts of the New Testament can be read as drawing a distinction between Sheol, the common "place of the dead," and Gehenna, the lake of eternal fire where the evil dead are tormented. English accounts are not always mindful of this distinction, and the two destinations may both be rendered Hell.

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 the Odyssey. Writing shortly before the birth of Jesus, Vergil included it in the Aeneid. What little is known 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.

Early Christian Views

A c.1315 fresco depicting the Harrowing of Hell in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul.

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).

The Gospel of Matthew relates that immediately after Christ died, the earth shook, the veil in the Temple was torn in two, and many people rose from the dead and walked about in Jerusalem testifying. 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 suggest that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in Hell by prophesying to those held there that Christ would soon release them, just as he prepared the way for Jesus on earth.

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 third century C.E. 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 Satan, and the entry of the King of Glory, imagined as from within Tartarus.

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 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.

Later Interpretations of the doctrine

Roman Catholic

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' (Heb 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."[3]

The Catechism explains that the word "hell"—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.[4] 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 (633), echoing the words of the Roman Catechism, 1,6,3. His death was of no avail to the damned.

Eastern Orthodox

Harrowing of Hell, an icon by Dionisius, from the Ferapontov Monastery.

John Chrysostom's homily also addresses the Harrowing of Hell, and is typically read as the chief homily at Pascha, the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter. In the Orthodox liturgical practice, the chief "liturgical color" goes from purple on Good Friday to white on Holy Saturday in celebration of the harrowing of Hell then taking place, and in anticipation of Christ's imminent resurrection.

The traditional Eastern Orthodox icon depiction, which also represents the Resurrection of Jesus, shows Jesus standing on the broken and flattened gates of Hell (also called the Doors of Death, which have fallen to form the pattern of a cross), holding the hands of Adam and Eve and pulling them up out of Hell, and surrounded by various righteous figures from the Old Testament (Abraham, David, etc.); the bottom of the icon shows Hell as a place of darkness and death, often with various bones strewn about, and one figure still tied up in chains who is generally identified as Death or the Devil. The Harrowing of Hell is generally more common and prominent in Orthodox iconography, compared to the Western tradition.


The historical mainstream Protestant position is that if Christ had descended into Hell (place of eternal suffering), he would have had to bear God's Curse. Calvin's conclusion was that "Christ's descent into hell was necessary for Christians to realize how much our salvation cost the Son of God," because Christ did in fact endure the penalty for the sins of the redeemed.

Latter-day Saints

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Harrowing of Hell is not a one-time event but an ongoing process.[5]

In Literature

  • In Dante's Inferno, the Harrowing of Hell is mentioned in Canto IV.
  • The Medieval romance of Sir Orfeo has often been seen as drawing parallels between the titular character and Jesus' freeing souls from hell.
  • In Stephen Lawhead's novel, Byzantium, a young Irish monk is asked to explain Jesus' life to a group of Vikings, who are particularly impressed with Jesus' "Helreið."
  • In I.L. 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.


  1. Creeds.net, He Descended into Hell.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary.
  3. Vatican.va, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 636-637. Retrieved January 21, 2008.
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 633.
  5. "Doctrine and Covenants," section 138.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • MacCulloch, J.A. Harrowing of Hell: A Comparative Study of an Early Christian Doctrine. Ams Pr Inc., 1982. ISBN 978-0404184261
  • Martin, Regis. The Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness. Ignatius Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1586171056
  • Pitstick, Alyssa Lyra. Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. ISBN 978-0802840394
  • Turner, Alice K. The History of Hell. Harvest Books; 1st Harvest edition, 1995. ISBN 978-0156001373

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2024.


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