He descended into hell. -- The Apostles' CreedThe ancient Christian teaching of the harrowing of hell between Christ's death and resurrection is barely a trace memory in the Protestant liturgical churches, and is probably completely forgotten among the non-liturgical Protestants. It may get a nod during the recitation of the Apostles' Creed1 if that church recites a creed. That it is mentioned in Scriptures, that the early church fathers taught it, that it is one of the most popular subjects of Eastern Orthodox icons2, that the idea was once widely accepted, that it was incorporated into Dante's Inferno ... all that is within an inch of forgotten. What exactly happened between Jesus' crucifixion and his resurrection? The early church held that Christ descended to the place of the dead as a conquering victor, preaching to those who had died in previous ages, and releasing the faithful souls from the prison of death; that during his time among the dead he plundered hell. That ancient teaching is referred to as "the harrowing of hell."
He was put to death in the body but made alive through the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built (from 1 Peter 3:18-20)Peter mentions plainly that Christ preached to the "spirits in prison" and mentions those who disobeyed long before, long since dead. While Peter does not explicitly mention when this occurred, he mentions it immediately after mentioning Jesus' execution and resurrection. If that were the only mention, it would still be plain enough to know that Christ preached to those who were dead. Peter mentions it again:
But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are [now] dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:5-6)The NIV adds the word "now" to make the phrase "preached even to those who are now dead"; this is simply not in the Greek, which says that the gospel was preached to the dead.
Do the gospel texts mention preaching to the dead or harrowing hell and releasing those held there? There are two passages which are sometimes quoted in that respect but, like many controversial theological issues, are contested in interpretation:
I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:25)Note that modern Protestant interpretations sometimes interpret this to mean that those who hear will live at judgment day; as for the part about the time "has now come", that is taken to mean that the "dead" who hear are the "spiritually dead" at the time he spoke. In fairness to this interpretation it is not an impossible understanding of the text -- though it is not the one that most naturally occurs to us at first reading. It is not certain that this refers to the harrowing of hell because the time "has now come" is a little premature for Jesus' death.
Matthew also contains a mention that at Jesus' death, at least some among the righteous people already dead were restored to life:
The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:52-53)This is one basis on which the early church maintained that Christ did not merely preach while he was among the dead, but also released the righteous among the dead.
The Early Church
The church before Nicea has a good number of references to this teaching, some of them very early. Irenaeus gives us one glimpse of how the early church understood all this.
It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. Now all those believed in Him who had hope towards Him, that is, those who proclaimed His advent, and submitted to His dispensations, the righteous men, the prophets, and the patriarchs, to whom He remitted sins in the same way as He did to us, which sins we should not lay to their charge, if we would not despise the grace of God. For as these men did not impute unto us (the Gentiles) our transgressions, which we wrought before Christ was manifested among us, so also it is not right that we should lay blame upon those who sinned before Christ’s coming. (From Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XXVII)
The Stromata (Clement of Alexandria) contains an entire chapter devoted to the subject that the gospel was preached to the Jews and the Gentiles in Hades.
More of its history can be reviewed in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, or various Eastern Orthodox references such as this. A complete review of the material would be beyond the length I intend for here; those interested are invited to pursue the links and to visit and search the Christian Classics Etherial Library.
What conclusions can be rightly reached from the material? It is clear that many in the early church believed and taught that Christ had harrowed hell during his descent, and they based this on their understanding of what the apostles themselves taught. It is clear that this understanding of Scripture has a long history going back to very early church writings. The passages of the New Testament which support this are brief and few, though in fairness it could be mentioned that some other doctrines are likewise based on just a few mentions in Scripture. Some would hold that one plain mention is enough. The passages in Peter's first letter are the clearest in establishing that Christ preached to the dead. The topic does raise more questions than it answers, both for the texts and for the theological implications.
For this writing, it is beyond my intent to show that the Harrowing of Hell is a necessary conclusion. Some of the passages of Scripture are contested, others still specifying the event of Christ preaching to the dead but not in the same passage specifying the time or the outcome. This is simply to show that the harrowing of hell is a viable interpretation and is no doctrinal innovation, having a history back to the earliest days of the church and to the pages of the New Testament. One of the largest obstacles to renewing a teaching of the harrowing of hell is simply this: we do not know all of the implications.
1 - While the history of the Apostles' Creed is beyond the scope here, it should be noted that this particular line of the creed does not seem to have come into the Apostles' Creed from the old Roman creed but from other sources. Like the other portions of the Apostles' Creed, this line has its foundation in Scripture -- the teachings of Christ as passed along and taught by his apostles -- and in the understanding of Scripture in the primitive church.
2 - The Orthodox icons of Christ's resurrection tend to show the "gates of hell" lying broken as he pulls out the righteous from Adam to David to John the Baptist, as they say the gates of hell shall not prevail.