Analytic Theology

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What Is Meant by the “Harrowing” of Hell?

December 21st, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: A curious term indeed, it refers to the three days Jesus spent in Hell after he was crucified, before he went to Heaven. But what was he doing there, and why would he want to visit such a place? For me, at least, this always has seemed to be a kind of bolt-on appendage to the story of His death and resurrection: superfluous and unnecessary. Yet, somehow, Catholic theology became committed to it; if nothing else, this is a good demonstration of how matters tend to effloresce, as you incorporate one thing into your doctrine, but then it creates problems for another, so you introduce an explanation, etc.

Says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”): “In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only ‘die for our sins’ but should also ‘taste death’, experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body, between the time he expired on the cross and the time he was raised from the dead,” §624. And, “it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth,” CCC §631 (I think the “life springing forth” §631 is talking about is the Resurrection, not some bucolic notion of flowers blooming in the springtime).

OK, we know Jesus was “raised from the dead,” and a logical precondition of same would be, to be dead in the first place. Being dead means, one sojourns in the realm of the dead. But why couldn’t Jesus just have ascended directly to heaven? We know mortal sinners go straight to hell; shouldn’t the converse, also be true?

This is where things get sticky. Because a lot of people who were good candidates to ascend to Heaven, already were dead prior to Jesus’ time on earth. They didn’t necessarily do anything wrong; they just were “deprived of the vision of God” “while they await the Redeemer,” CCC §633. Poor Lazarus, for example, already had been received into “Abraham’s bosom.”

Something has to be done for these folks. After all, it would be unjust and inequitable just to let all of them, even the righteous, continue to stew in “hell” – meant, in this sense, not as a fiery furnace reserved for sinners, but rather, simply, the abode of the dead – Sheol in Hebrew, or Hades in Greek. Jesus therefore “descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there,” CCC §632. He “did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him,” CCC §633. “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.

And this is how the Church became metaphysically committed to such an obtuse concept. Good people weren’t able to go straight to Heaven, because they had to hear about Jesus, first; kinda like the Salvation Army preaches to the homeless, before they get to eat. But for this doctrinal intrusion, good people could go straight to Heaven, and that would be the end of it.

“The Harrowing accounted for a crucial period of time and for proper disposal of the revered figures from the Old Testament … It dramatized the Christian promise of resurrection much better than any book in the New Testament. Furthermore, the Harrowing was vitally important to the Christian image in its portrait of a virile, capable Jesus, not suffering on the cross or preaching to the poor, but battling demons, rescuing prisoners, righting wrongs, and issuing orders like a triumphant warrior-prince,” Turner, A., The History of Hell 68 (1993).

Confusingly, Matthew 27:52 – 53 states, at the instant of Jesus’ death, there was a great earthquake, as a result of which “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” More significantly, “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” The reason why this is confusing is because it occurs as Jesus dies; these particular saints evidently didn’t have to wait for the entire three-day period to expire. Additionally, while in Hell, Jesus is supposed to have “destroyed” Satan, “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” CCC §635. Last time I checked, though, he still was around.

Jesus was not the first to harrow Hell. There are a number of pre-Christian stories also relating a descent into the underworld. For example, Orpheus seeks his wife; and, Theseus and Peirithoos attempt to kidnap Persephone, Turner, op. cit. 6.

The apocryphal Book of Enoch (in particular, 2 Enoch) was written in the early centuries CE. Enoch was the great-grandfather of Noah. He is one of only three people in the Bible who ascended into heaven while he still was alive, Genesis 5:24, an account related in his Gospel. After going back to Earth (for thirty days) to relate his message, he returns to heaven, where he is transformed into the angel Metatron.

The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (also called the Acts of Pilate) was written somewhat later, in the middle of the fourth century CE. Nicodemus was the Pharisee, who, according to John, was predisposed towards Jesus, John 3:1 – 21; 7:45 –51; 19:39 – 42. In addition to other tales, the Gospel relates how St. Dismas (one of the two thieves who was crucified alongside Christ, Luke 23:39 – 43), accompanies Christ through hell, as he delivers the Old Testament patriarchs (remember, they predeceased him, and therefore had to receive the Good News before they became entitled to ascend into Heaven). “The book aimed at gratifying the desire for extra-evangelical details concerning Our Lord, and at the same time, to strengthen faith in the Resurrection of Christ, and at general edification. The writers (for the work we have is a composite) could not have expected their production to be seriously accepted by unbelievers,” Reid, G., “Acta Pilati,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

Later medieval English Mystery Plays took up the same theme, and scenes of the harrowing of Hell were among the most popular with the village townsfolk. And then of course Dante’s Inferno itself properly can be conceived of as a harrowing story, as Virgil accompanies the poet in a guided tour of the underworld.

Another definition of “harrowing” is something “extremely disturbing or distressing,” as in, a harrowing experience. This certainly must have been as true for Jesus as it was for Dante, especially considering Jesus had additional duties to perform, besides just soaking up the general atmosphere of the place.