Holy Saturday: The Harrowing of Hell

by David O'Neill


Growing up, there was a line of the Apostles' Creed that always puzzled me, and it became even more puzzling to me after the retranslation of the Mass in 2011. As a child I remember praying “…died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day…” In my limited knowledge of the faith, I thought I understood what “descended to the dead” meant; it must have just been a restating of the earlier “died and was buried”, Christ was dead from the point of His crucifixion to His resurrection. However, I didn’t know what Christ did for this period of His death, and as a child this question never surfaced itself. However, in Advent of 2011, we implemented a new translation of the liturgical texts that better reflect the Latin. This includes the Apostles Creed. No longer did we profess that “He descended to the dead”; the new translation reads “…died, and was buried. he descended into hell; on the third day…”.


I found this retranslation to be extremely confusing, Christ descended to hell? Why would our Blessed Lord ever descend to hell? I remembered my CCD classes­­—hell was for sinners, unrepentant people who did evil; Christ is sinless so it made no sense to me that He would descend to hell. Moreover, what did He do in hell? Was He tortured by Satan for sins He never committed? Was the crucifixion not enough reparation? I tabled these questions for many years.


After a reversion experience in high school, I found myself studying the faith, and this earlier curiosity about the Apostles Creed resurfaced itself. How glad I am that the bishops decided to retranslate the Apostles’ Creed in 2011; the new translation makes the theological truth found in the Latin (descendit ad infernos) much more apparent to those like myself who perhaps never had spent much time thinking about what Christ did between His Crucifixion on Good Friday and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.


I was reminded of the importance of this line of the creed a few weeks back when I was back home in Minnesota for the weekend, and the priest preached on the importance of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday—lying between Good Friday and Easter Sunday—is the time that Christ “descended into hell”. The importance of Christ’s descent into hell is emphasized more among Eastern traditions, such as the Eastern-Rite Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. From the time of Abraham to the time of Christ God revealed His will through His chosen people­­—the Israelites. Though many of the Israelites lived lives of great holiness and faith in God, many of them died before Christ­­—the Messiah Whom they were promised­­ and Whom they waited for­­—was incarnate and crucified for the redemption of mankind. We needed a Savior for this very reason­­—by way of original sin we had lost the ability to share in the beatific vision with God. Christ saves us from death and offers us eternal life. Of course, this offer would not only be extended to those born around or after the time Christ became incarnate, so it would make no sense for Him to leave the righteous dead out of His redemption of mankind.


However, before His Crucifixion and Resurrection, all people­­—the just and the unjust, faithful and faithless­­—were sent to hell as punishment for original sins­­—just as all of the living also were destined for hell because of the stain of original sin. Thus, following His death, Christ descended into hell, not because He was slave to sin or because He deserved hell. Rather, He freely chose to descend to hell in order that He might rescue the just and faithful from their imprisonment and bring them with Him into heaven at His Resurrection. St. Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae:

The holy Fathers were detained in hell for the reason, that, owing to our first parent's sin, the approach to the life of glory was not opened. And so, when Christ descended into hell He delivered the holy Fathers from thence. And this is what is written Zech. 9:11: "Thou also by the blood of Thy testament hast sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit, wherein is no water." And (Col. 2:15) it is written that "despoiling the principalities and powers," i.e. "of hell, by taking out Isaac and Jacob, and the other just souls," "He led them," i.e. "He brought them far from this kingdom of darkness into heaven" as the gloss explains. 


The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that Christ’s descent into hell was no small event­­. His descent “brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus' messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption” (CCC 634).


In English, the Church refers to Christ’s descent into hell as “The Harrowing of Hell.” To harrow is to despoil or violate. Christ violently removed that which Satan found most attractive­­—the souls of the just and pious. God did not forget His chosen people, when God so loved the world that He gave His Son up to die, He removed the clasp of Satan over all humans­­—not only alive but also dead.


The harrowing of hell shows that no matter how far from God we are, He is always working to bring us into His fold. As St. Peter tells us “the gospel was preached even to the dead, [so] that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God” (1 Peter 4:6). It is up to us to follow the example of our fathers and mothers in the faith­­—the faithful Hebrews­­—who upon hearing the Gospel in hell put their trust in Christ and His promise of redemption.


This Holy Saturday, let us not forget of the Harrowing of Hell, and let us pray that those whom Christ brought from hell will pray for us­­—that we too may be freed from the clutches of Satan, and that unified in Christ with a death like His, we may share in His Resurrection.

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