He Descended into Hell

We have entered into the drama of Holy Week. As the events of these days are each momentous, there is too little time, especially during the Triduum, to confront each of them as they are presented to us by Holy Mother Church. By way of advance preparation, I propose to consider one and only one mystery of Good Friday: the Harrowing of hell.

When the Creed tells us that Our Lord descended into hell, what part of the nether regions is here meant? What is the purpose for His descending there? And how did the Man-God do it without that Body that lay in the tomb? Lastly, presuming that the Apostle of the Father went there on a mission to benefit some persons, who were the beneficiaries of His descent?

Before we proceed to these questions, a simple definition of “harrow” may be in order. The word means, first, “to ravish; violate; despoil,” next “to ravage, as in war; devastate,” and lastly “(of Christ) to descend into (hell) to free the righteous held captive.” It is evidently this last usage based on the two preceding, that we are using. (The definitions come from Dictionary.com, where more details of etymology, etc., may be found.)

Following the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, we should begin answering these questions by pointing to the fourfold division of hell. First, there is hell in the strict sense, which Saint Thomas calls Gehenna, i.e., that place and state of everlasting deprivation of beatitude, accompanied by the “pain of sense” in punishment of actual sin. This is what we call damnation.

The three remaining divisions of hell we may call hell in the wide sense (Infernus), which includes Purgatory, and the two Limbos (of Children, and of the Fathers).

Note that the word for hell in the wide sense, Infernus, is not the word used in the Creed. That word is inferos, from inferus (it lacks the second n of infernus). Although both mean “lower,” the word infernus (with the n) means more properly, hell, while inferos, in the plural, may mean the lower regions or those that are beneath. We get our English word, inferior, from inferus.

Still, the English translation of inferos as hell has a long pedigree and is justified, if we grasp firmly the “wide sense” of hell, or the “essential” hell — that is the state of deprivation of the beatific vision, but without the pain of sense that is integral to Gehenna, the hell of the damned. Theologians distinguish between the pain of loss and the pain of sense. It is the pain of loss that is essential to hell, and which is due to original sin only, while the pain of sense superadded to it serves as punishment for actual sin.

For more on Saint Thomas’ four-fold division, see Dr. Taylor Marshall’s “The Four Sections of Hell,” or Saint Thomas himself, “Whether so many abodes should be distinguished?”

Using these four categories, then, we can reply that the hell that Jesus descended into on Good Friday was neither Gehenna, nor Purgatory, nor the Limbo of the Children. It was the Limbo of the Fathers.

The next question is what is the purpose for His descending there? According to the Catechism of the Council of Trent, there was a two-fold purpose to Christ’s triumphal descent into the nether world: to liberate the just, and to proclaim His power. Now, liberating the just points us to the last question we have proposed to answer further down, regarding the beneficiaries of Jesus’ descent into hell; here we will discuss Christ proclaiming His power.

Our Lord Jesus Christ being the King of the Universe, He has sovereign dominion over all that is — even as Man, for the Father “hath subjected all things under his feet” (Eph. 1:22). On earth, His Kingdom, the Church, was established during his temporal mission here, where He manifested His power in a variety of ways, not the least being his Resurrection and Ascension. He will soon ascend into Heaven, where his Kingship will be most perfectly honored by both His angelic and human subjects; His power, too, will be unmistakably clear to all who gladly behold his glorious Face. This leaves hell as the one place where the Man-God would otherwise not have gone in his humanity to assert His dominion. In its very brief explanation of this reason for Christ’s descent into hell, the Catechism of the Council of Trent uses the text of Philippians 2:10:

Another reason why Christ the Lord descended into hell is that there, as well as in heaven and on earth, He might proclaim His power and authority, and that every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.

The art that portrays the Harrowing of hell is generally triumphalist. Christ breaks down gates with the standard of His Holy Cross. He liberates Adam as demons watch in horror. And He bears the sacred stigmata while doing so. But He also has leisure to catechize these saints of the Old Testament about Himself, while an angelic choir sings in the background.

Our Byzantine brethren have incorporated the Harrowing of hell into their Divine Liturgy. On Holy Saturday,

…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.

As one might imagine, Eastern Christians also depict the subject beautifully in their tradition of icons. See the icon of the Harrowing of Hades here, and then read it described:

The icon depicts 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 by 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 original or 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 or the Devil.

Now we proceed to our next question: how did the Man-God do this without that Body that lay in the tomb? The answer is a simple one, but it occasions some deeper Christological considerations. In the Hypostatic Union that joined perfectly a complete humanity to the divine Person of the Logos, every integral part of that humanity is united to the divinity. For this reason, during the triduum mortis (the three days of death), the Body in the tomb, the Blood strewn on the via dolorosa, and the human soul of Christ all remained joined to the divinity, even though they were each separated from the others. The essence of death is the separation of body and soul, and Jesus truly did experience death in all its horrible force, but His soul was not doomed to descend into Sheol to wait passively for long years as the other just of the Old Testament were, and His body experienced no putrefaction in the tomb. All this was in keeping with that prophesy of David, cited by Saint Peter: “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, nor suffer thy Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27).

Both the body in the tomb and the soul descended into hell were united to the divinity. Is it any wonder then, that Catholic artists and poets (e.g., Dante) depict hell being shaken and permanently altered by Jesus’ descent there? It was God Almighty, hypostatically united to the disembodied soul of Jesus, who descended there that He might, as the Tridentine Catechism has it, “proclaim His power and authority.”

Which brings us to our final question: presuming that the Apostle of the Father went there on a mission to benefit some person or persons, who were the beneficiaries of His descent?

The term “Apostle of the Father” is language I borrow from Saint Vincent Pallotti, the Founder of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate. He liked to consider Our Lord as the first Apostle, that is, the first “sent one,” in His mission to save man. In this context, the title draws attention to the fact that this descent into hell is part of the mission that the Son received from the Father.

Heaven did not yet have any human denizens. Redeemed humanity would only begin to enter there when its Head had done so, that is, on Ascension Thursday. So the souls of all the just from our first parents through the patriarchs, Abraham, Moses, King David, the prophets, the Holy Maccabees, even up to and including the great Saint Joseph — all of them had to wait in the Limbo of the Fathers until our divine Trailblazer beat the path and opened the gates.

According to Saint Peter, Christ spent at least part of this triduum mortis in preaching:

Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit, In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. (1 Pet. 3:18)

Apparently some of those who mocked Noe for building the ark died penitent deaths and went to the Limbo of the Fathers, probably after an expiatory stay in Purgatory.

About these saints of the Old Testament and how they must have welcomed Our Lord into their midst, I will let Dom Prosper Guéranger have the final word:

The Son of God has subjected Himself to everything, save sin, that our human nature has to suffer or undergo: it is by His Resurrection that He is to triumph, it is by His Ascension alone that He is to open the gates of heaven: hence, His Soul, having been separated from His Body by death, was to descend into the depths of the earth, and become a companion with the holy exiles there. He had said of Himself: ‘The Son of Man shall be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights’ [Mt. 12:40]. What must have been the joy of these countless saints! And how majestic must have been the entrance of our Emmanuel into their abode! No sooner did our Jesus breathe His last upon the cross, than the limbo of the saints was illumined with heavenly splendour. The Soul of the Redeemer, united to the Divinity of the Word, descended thither, and changed it from a place of banishment into a very paradise. Thus did He fulfil the promise He had made to the good thief: ‘This day shalt thou be with me in paradise.’

The happy hour, so long expected by these saints, has come! What tongue could tell their joy, their admiration, and their love, as they behold the Soul of Jesus, who thus comes among them to share and close their exile! He looks complacently on this countless number of His elect, the fruits of four thousand years of His grace, this portion of His Church purchased by His Blood, and to which the merits of His Blood were applied by the mercy of His eternal Father even before it was shed on Calvary! Let us who hope, on our own departure from this world, to ascend to Him, who has gone to prepare a place for us in Heaven [John 14:2], joyfully congratulate these our holy ancestors. Let us also adore the condescension of our Emmanuel, who deigns to spend these three days in the heart of the earth, that so He might sanctify every condition of our nature, and take upon Himself even what was but a transient state of our existence.