[He] was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into Hell.
On the third day, he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into Heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Millions of Christians have recited these lines from the Apostles’ Creed as a statement of their faith.1 Dated as early as the second century C.E., the creed is part of the baptismal liturgy of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. The creed’s brief account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is borrowed directly from the Gospels—except for one line: “He descended into Hell”—in Latin, Descendit ad inferna.
Countless Byzantine and late medieval paintings depict this mysterious descent.2 In Italian artist Benvenuto di Giovanni’s version (above), from about 1490, Jesus stands at the entrance to a cave-like Hell. He has broken down the door, killing a red demon in the process. Jesus extends his arm toward an aged man with long white hair and beard: It is Adam, the first (and thus the oldest) man. Several other righteous spirits rush to greet Jesus: They include Eve (beside Adam) and John the Baptist (far right), wearing his animal skins.
Just when did Jesus descend into Hell and what did he do there? How did his descent become an integral part of early church belief and art?
Although Jesus’ descent into Hell is never explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, the concept is nevertheless based on two slender references in First Peter, which purports to be a letter from the apostle Peter to Christians in Asia Minor. Trying to convince his readers that God is triumphant over all, Peter states that the crucified Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey” (1 Peter 3:19). Later he adds that “the gospel was preached even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit as God does” (1 Peter 4:6).
In early church writings, these imprisoned “spirits” were identified as the righteous dead—the good people who died before Jesus did. In Jesus’ day, Hell (Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek) was understood not as a place of eternal damnation, but as the resting place of all dead souls. Christians believed that the righteous dead had to stay in this underworld until Jesus came; there was no heaven for them to go to until Jesus died and ascended.3
When used elsewhere in the New Testament, however, the term “spirits” is not applied to human mortals; rather, it probably refers to Satan and his entourage 022of demons. Thus, in 1 Peter 3:19, Jesus is actually declaring victory over the demonic realm; he is not preaching to the righteous dead.4 The second passage, 1 Peter 4:6, on the other hand, does say that the gospel was preached to the dead—but it offers no suggestion that Jesus actually descended to Hell to preach it.5
Misreading or not, it stuck. The two lines in Peter provided the impetus for credal, textual and artistic descriptions of Jesus’ descent into Hell—popularly called the Harrowing of Hell—from the second century on.
The term “harrow” derives from an Old English word. A harrow was a pronged farming tool used to clear stones from fields before planting. In Christian theology, the “Harrowing of Hell” apparently refers to Jesus’ separation of the just from the unjust in Hades. The just were freed. The event was also referred to as Jesus’ descent into Limbo; Limbo, from the Latin limbus (“border”), refers to a specific part of Hell—the outer border or boundary—that was reserved for the just of the Old Testament.a
The earliest extrabiblical allusion to Jesus’ descent is found in the writings of the early church father Ignatius (c. 50–107 C.E.). Ignatius describes the Old Testament prophets as disciples of Jesus, who came to them—apparently in Hell—and raised them from the dead:
If these things be so, how then shall we be able to live without him of whom even the prophets were disciples in the Spirit and to whom they 023looked forward as their teacher? And for this reason, he whom they waited for in righteousness, raised them from the dead when he came.6
In the Odes of Solomon, an early collection of Christian hymns dating to about 100 C.E., Jesus opens the doors of Hell and the dead rush toward him, crying out, “Son of God, have pity on us.” They beg Jesus, “Bring us out from the bonds of darkness. And open for us the door by which we may come out to You; for we perceive that our death does not touch You. May we also be saved with You, because You are our Savior.” And he grants their wish.7
Bishop Melito of Sardis (died c. 190 C.E.) quotes Jesus as saying, “I am the one who trampled Hell, bound the strong one, and snatched away people and took them up to heaven on high.”8 The image is a powerful one: In art, Jesus is frequently shown crushing Satan (or Hades personified) beneath his feet (see photo in the first sidebar to this article).
The early Easter liturgy reinforced this interpretation by combining reflections on 1 Peter with certain evocative passages from Psalms, taken out of context. Psalm 107:13–16, for example—“They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder”—was read as a description of Jesus’ efforts to release the righteous in Hades. So was Psalm 16:10: “You will not leave my soul in Sheol; neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.”
But the fullest description of Jesus’ descent into Hell is found in the fifth- or sixth-century apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which details Jesus’ activities from the time of his passion to his ascension.9 This gospel’s account of Jesus’ descent begins with Joseph of Arimathea speaking in Jerusalem before the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. “Why then do you marvel that Jesus has been raised? This in itself is not marvelous, but what is marvelous is that he was not raised alone, but raised up many other dead who appeared to many in Jerusalem,” says Joseph. The Gospel of Nicodemus then narrates Jesus’ liberation of Hell.
The gates of brass were broken in pieces and the bars of iron were crushed and all the dead who were bound were loosed from their chains, and we with them. And the King of Glory entered as a man, and all the dark places of Hades were illuminated … Then the King of Glory seized the chief ruler Satan by the head and handed him over to the angels, saying “Bind with irons his hands and his feet and his neck and his mouth.” Then he gave him to Hades [hell personified] and said, “Take him and hold him fast until my second coming.”
… The King of Glory stretched out his right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam and raised him up. Then he turned to the rest and said, “Come with me, all you who have died through the tree which this man touched.b For behold, I raise you all up again through the tree of the cross.” With that he sent them all out. And our forefather Adam was seen to be full of joy, and said, “I give thanks to your majesty, O Lord, because you have brought me up from the lowest Hades.” Likewise all the prophets and the saints said, “We give you thanks, O Christ, Savior of the world, because you have brought up our life from destruction.” When they had said this, the Savior blessed Adam with the sign of the cross on his forehead. And he did this also to the patriarchs and prophets and martyrs and forefathers, and he took them and sprang up out of Hades. And as he went the holy fathers sang praises, following him and saying, “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord [Matthew 21:9]. Alleluia. To him be the glory of all the saints.” Thus he went into paradise holding our forefather Adam by the hand, and he handed him and all the righteous to Michael the archangel.10
Among the righteous spirits named in the Gospel of Nicodemus are Adam, David and the prophets Habakkuk and Micah.c The gospel’s list of names proved extremely influential in art, where it is often easy to pick out specific Old Testament figures, as in Fra Angelico’s painting on the
A far less detailed but equally influential account of Jesus’ descent appeared in the 13th-century book Meditations on the Life of Christ, attributed to the Tuscan monk St. Bonaventure. This devotional book included a series of meditations intended to inspire the faithful to contemplate the contemporary significance of Jesus’ life; one entire meditation was devoted to his descent into Hell. What the Meditations lacks in specific detail about Jesus’ meeting with the saints, it makes up for in its highly charged emotional tone:
Immediately upon His death He descended to the holy fathers in Hell and stayed with them … Consider and remark how much goodness there was in His descending into Hell, how much charity, how much humility. For He could have sent an angel to them, to free all His servants and bring them to Him wherever He wished; but His infinite love and humility would not allow this. 024… Reflect on this well, and admire and try to imitate it. The holy fathers rejoiced at His coming and were full of immense joy. All discontent was banished far away, and they remained praising Him and singing to Him … And falling down, they adored Him with great joy and pleasure. Look at them as they stand before Him with reverence and immense exultation, their faces joyful … and thus with praises, singing and jubilation they remained in Limbo until near the dawn on Sunday, together with a multitude of angels in the same place, rejoicing with them. Then the Lord received them, leading them in exultation out of Hell; and proceeding before them gloriously. He placed them in the paradise of delights.11
By refraining from naming any specific righteous spirits, the author of the Meditations makes it easier for any and every reader to “enter into” this story of joyous redemption.
The Meditations enjoyed widespread popularity among the 13th-century Italian masses, but it was left to Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to provide the sophisticated and substantial theological underpinning for the doctrine of the descent into Hell.
By the ninth or tenth century, Hell was thought to have three distinct divisions: the place of torments, where the damned were imprisoned; purgatory; and Limbo, which many divided into the Limbus sanctorum patrum (the Limbo of the holy fathers, that is the righteous of the Old Testament) and the Limbus puerorum (the Limbo 025for unbaptized children and the mentally impaired). The divisions of Hell appear (with great variation) in the paintings of Giotto and Bronzino (see the third sidebar to this article) as well as in Dante’s Inferno.d Still others attempted to apply scientific reasoning to the physical landscape of Hell. The Venetian physician and geographer Giuseppe Rosaccio (1550–1620), for example, calculated the circumference of the various divisions of Hell and determined that the first 988 miles under the surface of the earth were devoted exclusively to the Limbo of the Old Testament righteous!
According to Aquinas, Jesus descended into each division of Hell for a different purpose: “He went to the Hell of the damned to confound the damned for their unbelief and malice; to those who were detained in purgatory he brought the hope of a future glory; and to the holy patriarchs who were in Hell only on account of original sin, he brought the light of eternal glory.”12
Furthermore, according to Aquinas, Jesus did not make the descent into Hell alone. Rather he was joined by the penitent thief (later named Dysmas) who was crucified beside Jesus—a distinctive detail picked up by the Italian artists Giotto (not shown) and Bronzino (see the third sidebar to this article). According to Luke’s gospel, at the crucifixion one of the thieves mocks Jesus, saying to him, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” (Luke 23:39). The other thief, however, admits that the two thieves have been justly condemned whereas Jesus 026was innocent. He asks Jesus to remember him. And Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). If Jesus and the thief were to have met that day, then they must have gone to Hell together. For Aquinas, Jesus’ presence apparently transformed Hell into Paradise for the thief. Thomas Aquinas asserted that Jesus remained in Hell with the saints until his resurrection on Sunday morning, “so that his soul might be led forth from Hell at the very moment his body was issuing from the tomb.” The Old Testament saints, who could not enter heaven before Jesus Christ, were finally led into heaven at his Ascension.13
Aquinas’s interpretation became the official Catholic position on the descent into Hell, recorded in the catechism produced by the Council of Trent (1545–1563) in response to Protestant “heresies.” The Council concluded: “To know the glory of the burial of our Lord Jesus Christ, of which we have just treated, is indeed highly important; but still more important it is to the faithful people, to know the splendid triumphs which he achieved, by having subdued the devil, and despoiled the depths of Hell.”14
Protestant Reformers tended to dismiss the doctrine of the descent into Hell. John Calvin’s comments were typical: “Though this fable has the countenance of great authors, and is now seriously defended by many as truth, it is nothing but a fable.”15
Luther was just as vehement, denying “the existence of a purgatory and of a Limbo of the fathers in which they say that there is hope and a sure expectation of liberation … These are figments of some stupid and bungling sophist.”16 Nevertheless, Luther considered the descent into Hell an appropriate allegory for the triumph of Jesus Christ’s power over death and Satan,17 and Protestant art celebrated this triumph over death (see the last sidebar to this article).
Perhaps for this reason, by the 17th century, the descent into Hell, as a topic of discussion in literature and as a subject of visual representation, had virtually disappeared, even in Roman Catholic art.18 Artists once again became more interested in depicting scenes from the earthly ministry of Jesus; the descent into Hell had the misfortune of having no description in the Gospels (and hence was almost always omitted from illuminated Gospels). The descent into Hell descended, if not into Limbo, into oblivion.
This article was written while we were on research leave in Florence, Italy, in the summer of 2002. Appreciation is expressed to Baylor University’s College of Arts and Sciences Sabbatical Committee, the Albritton Grant for Faculty Research of the Art Department, the Lilly-funded Horizons program and, especially, Dean Wallace Daniel, Provost Donald Schmeltekopf, Senior Vice-Provost David Lyle Jeffrey, and chairmen John McClanahan (art) and Randall O’Brien (religion) for their support of our research.
[He] was crucified, died and was buried.