Thursday, May 13

The Harrowing of Hell and Early Christian Cosmology

*This is a May 2015 major revision of an original May 2010 article*
One of the more interesting doctrines held by numerous Christian traditions is the "Harrowing of Hell," which seeks to give an answer to the often un-asked question, "what happened to Jesus during the three days between his death and resurrection?" The Apostles Creed, an early statement of Christian belief (from credo, "I believe") that Jesus "was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven...". In Ancient Christian cosmology and theology, the harrowing of Hell, as it is referred to, was when Jesus, after willing giving up his life on the Cross, “descended into Hell.” One a related note, one of the questions that early Christian wrestled with was, "what happened to people such as Moses, Elisha, Jonah, Noah, King David and King Solomon, and others, when they died?" If Jesus was the one who effectively opened the door to "our... Father in heaven," then where did these individuals go beforehand? What was this “descent” into Hell? Where did the ancient Hebrews and early Christians believe Hell to be located? 

The Location of Hell in Early Christian Cosmology
This doctrine is found in many major Christian traditions, as noted. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 636 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' (Hebrews 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." Martin Luther, in a sermon given in 1533, stated that Christ descended into Hell. One of the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, The Formula of Concord states, "we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power."[1] John Calvin, Protestant reformer, felt that "Christ's descent into Hell was necessary for Christians' atonement, because Christ did in fact endure the penalty for the sins of the redeemed."[2] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) also holds this doctrine. Thus, it seems that this doctrine has been and continues to be important for several Christian traditions, including others not mentioned here. 

As aforementioned, one of the questions that crops up during an exploration of this doctrine is how Hell was viewed in the ancient Christian cosmology. Early Christian cosmology held that “hell," was once two sections, separated by a "great chasm" (Luke 16:26). They believed that Job and all righteous individuals went to Sheol, or the Pit. As conveyed by the words of Jesus in Luke 16, one could not return from sheol, although there appeared be to be least one instance in canonical Scripture. 1st Samuel 28:3-25 details such an instance. Shortly after the prophet Samuel died, King Saul went to visit a “witch” in Endor. Saul asked the witch to raise Samuel, so that he could hear his guidance. The woman exclaimed, “'I see a ghostly figure coming out of the earth.... An old man wearing a robe is coming up out of the earth.'" Samuel proceeded to say to King Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" This act of “coming up” from sheol also indicates the ancient Hebraic view that souls resided in some kind of underworld following death.

There are many other references to the location of Hell in Hebraic and early Christian cosmological thought. Ezekiel 26:20 says, "When I shall bring thee down with them that descend into the pit, with the people of old time, and shall set thee in the low parts of the earth, in places desolate of old, with them that go down to the pit..." Psalm 63:9 says, "But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth." Isaiah 26:19, "...and the earth shall cast out the dead." Psalm 139:15, "... in the lowest parts of the earth." Psalm 88:6 says, "You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths." Isaiah 57:9 says, "...and even descended to Sheol." Ezekiel speaks about the location numerous times, "down into the pit; down into hell; descend into the pit; are gone down... into the nether parts of the earth... down to hell... gone down...draw her down..." (Ezekiel 31:16-18; 32:18, 20-21, 23-25, 27, 29-30). 

Perhaps a better reference would be Ezekiel 26:20, "then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place in the land of the living."  Isaiah 14:19 says, "...hell from beneath...", Matthew 11:23, "shalt be brought down to hell...", Psalm 55:23, "But you, O God, shall bring them down into the pit of destruction." Psalm 40:2 continues, "He also brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay...", Psalm 30:3, "...not go down to the pit." Job 11:8, "It is as high as heaven... deeper than hell," Job 33:24, "Deliver him from going down to the pit," Psalm 9:15, "the heathen are sunk down in the pit," 2nd Peter 2:4, "...but cast them down to hell," Lamentations 3:55, "From the lowest pit [dungeon]," Luke 10:15, "...shalt be thrust down to hell..." and Job 21:13, "...and in a moment, go down to the grave [Sheol in original Hebrew]." Scripture appears to be referring to Hell in the lower regions, the "heart of the earth." 

The Katabasis in Early Christian Theology
Bearing in mind the location of hell in early Christian cosmological thought, the descent into the underworld is the second major piece under consideration. In many religious traditions, we find accounts of a hero or deity descending into the underworld or land of the dead and returning. The return of the hero from the realm of the dead often indicates eschatological themes such as the “cyclical nature of time and existence, or the defeat of death and the possibility of immortality.”[3] This descent into the underworld is known as a katabasis or catabasis (Greek meaning to “go down”).[4] In Greek mythology, for example, Orpheus descends into the underworld in order to bring Eurydice back to life. In the Homeric Odyssey, we see the descent of the titular hero to the underworld. The term has also been used to refer to a brief stay in the underworld, such as that experienced by the biblical Lazarus.[5] 

Dante’s Inferno includes a narrative of a descent into hell, based in part on the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, the Apocalypse of Peter and other early Christian literature on the topic. In this Gospel of Nicodemus, John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in Sheol by prophesying to those held there that Jesus would soon release them, just as he prepared the way for Jesus on Earth. The late 3rd-4th century Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia, also contains a reference to the katabasis. Others, such as Irenaeus, Epiphanius, St. John Chrysostom, St Melito of Sardis, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen and, St Ambrose wrote of the harrowing of Hell. Marcion and his followers also discussed the harrowing of Hell. Biblically, the katabasis of Jesus is referenced in Matthew 12:40. Here, the Pharisees ask for a sign from Jesus, and he replies, "None shall be given to you except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." 

Now, early Christians saw that this katabasis of Jesus was to open the way for for those who died to go to Heaven. Matthew 27:51-53 contains traces of this concept, which tells us that after Jesus rose from the dead, the saints who had also died rose to life and went into the city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people. Essentially, the understanding was that after Jesus had risen, and forty days later, when he ascended to Heaven, all of the saints who had also been risen to life seemingly were raptured into heaven with him. St. Paul mentions this katabasis in Ephesians 4:7-10. He begins by quoting Psalm 68:18, "When he ascended on high, he took many captives, and gave gifts to his people." This can be interpreted to mean that when he ascended, and the holy ones rose with him, they were the former "captives" of hell - and his gift was the Holy Spirit. St. Paul goes on to say, "What does 'he ascended' mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe." It appears that in saying this, St. Paul is not referring to Sheol as a mere grave, as Scripture sometimes does, but that because he ascended, he also descended - into the lower regions of the Earth - Hell. 1st Peter 3:18-19 says, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. In that state he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits."

The harrowing of Hell is a fascinating yet often neglected theological concept. Through the lens of a katabasis and this brief understanding of early Hebraic and Christian cosmological thought, one can understand why this concept was so important. For many, this doctrine is still an extremely important piece of the faith. If Jesus descended into hell in-between his crucifixion and resurrection, for some, it may be perceived as a more fulfilling reparation for sin, similar to the thinking of John Calvin. Others may believe it to be a now defunct doctrine - it was nixed from the later Nicene Creed (AD 381), but picked up again in the Athanasian Creed (AD 400s-500s). Certainly, it is not a central tenet of the Christian faith, though it was very important for early Christians and especially medieval Christians. The katabasis of Jesus and the harrowing of hell are still a piece of the Christian faith, albeit an often forgotten piece. But perhaps the most important take-away from this doctrine is the ascent: if Jesus descended, St. Paul wrote, then he was the same one who ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, preparing for the parousia when the day finally arrives.

[1] Solid Declaration, Article IX. 
[2] Calvin, John. "Descended Into Hell".
[3] Leeming, David. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press, 2005. 98. Print.; Edmonds III, Radcliffe G. Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets. Cambridge University Press, 2004.; Ed. John J. Collins and Michael Fishbane. Death, Ecstasy, and Other Wordly Journeys. State University of New York, 1995. Print.; Louden, Bruce. "Catabasis, Consultation, and the Vision: Odyssey 11, I Samuel 28, Gilgamesh 12, Aeneid 6, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and the Book of Revelation," in Homer's Odyssey and the Near East. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 197–221. Print.
[4] González Serrano, Pilar. "Catábasis y resurrección". Madrid: Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie II: Historia Antigua. v.12, 129–179. 1999. Print.
[5] Ibid.


  1. Troy
    Hi, I'm Shane and I'd like to tell you, thank you very much for this blog ! I've been reading a lot on here and I've really enjoyed all of it. I follow you on twitter so keep up the great work.

    Thank you again

  2. Shane,
    You're quite welcome, thank you very much for reading! I'm glad you enjoy it, I certainly enjoy writing it. Always wonderful to receive uplifting comments, I appreciate that. May God bless you!

    -Troy Hillman-