January 28, 2021

He Descended Into Hell

res-iconIt is a strange thing for me to say that Great and Holy Saturday is one of my favorite services in the entire Orthodox Church year.   The adjectival phrase ‘favorite service’ would have had no meaning for me when I was Reformed, because all Reformed services are either identical or aspire to be so.  The idea that certain seasons are more ‘Godly’ than others is a superstition, and as we all know, superstitions cannot be redeemed, only repented of.  It made more sense to me as a Pentecostal to speak of a favorite service, because Pentecostal services for all of their aesthetic failings have a wonderful open-endedness to them that invite our Lord the Spirit to participate.   I still remember Pentecostal services where there was a palpable presence and God seemed especially close.  Interestingly, none of them occurred in an air-conditioned building.  I often remark that Pentecostals do instinctively what the Orthodox do liturgically.  There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence; there is a lot of fleshy indulgence in even the best of Pentecostalism as there is a lot of tedious, flesh-crucifying ritualism in even the best of Orthodoxy.  Nevertheless, that statement is roughly true, but only roughly.

I never miss the Great and Holy Saturday service.  It is scheduled at an inconvenient time, on Saturday morning after you’ve already spent the entire previous day in church re-enacting the Passion and sacrifice of Christ on the Cross in three separate, seemingly interminable services.  I do not fault my fellow Orthodox who wish to take a breather on Saturday morning between the rigors of Holy Friday and the bright explosion of the midnight Paschal service, but you’ll always find me there.  The church is somber, still decorated in the funereal black of Great and Holy Friday.  Everything is incredibly still.  Great and Holy Saturday is  the pause between the cosmic systole and the cosmic diastole.   The Bridegroom icon, so prominent in the previous Holy week services, is nowhere to be seen.  Chances are, you’re a little woozy from lack of food.  Strict fasting, meaning water only,  is enjoined between midnight on Great and Holy Friday and the end of the Paschal liturgy.  This is the final sprint after the long marathon of Lent, and it bites deeply.

Halfway through the service, the tone immediately changes.  Gone are the wailing and the lamentations of the previous service, and the sixth Old Testament reading begins to sound the note of Paschal triumph with the reading of the Song of Moses and Miriam from the Book of Exodus:

I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.

The LORD is my strength and my song,

and he has become my salvation;

this is my God, and I will praise him,

my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The LORD is a man of war;

The LORD is his name.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea,

and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.

The floods covered them;

they went down into the depths like a stone.

Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power,

your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.

At the end of the final reading from the Greek book of Daniel known as the Song of the Three Holy Children, and the Epistle reading, the priest emerges from behind the iconostasis with a baker containing laurel leaves and ropes petals.  As the chanters sing Psalm 82, at the refrain “O God arise and judge the earth, for all nations are Yours” the priest flings the leaves and petals all over the church, symbolizing our Lord’s triumph (in the ancient Greek games the victors were given crowns of laurel and rose) over death, Hell, and the Devil.  I don’t care how attached you are to your own tradition, and whether you think the Orthodox Church primitive, or idolatrous, or irrelevant, or deader than Cool Hand Luke’s snapping turtle. Every baptized Trinitarian Christian along the spectrum from Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori to Dr. Peter Ruckman ought at least once in their life to experience the full Paschal cycle of Orthodox Holy Week services, but especially this one.

For this is the service above all others that reminds us that God became Meat.  Every death produces two horrors from which people instinctively recoil; a corpse and a spook.  The death of God the Son was no exception.  This was the perihelion of the heavenly comet.  This was the birth of God the Corpse:

“O Son without beginning, in ways surpassing nature was I blessed at Thy strange birth, for I was spared all travail.

But now beholding Thee, my God, a lifeless corpse, I am pierced by the sword of bitter sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified.”

And God the Spook.

“By mine own will the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble as they see me, clothed in the bloodstained garment of vengeance:  for on the Cross as God have I struck down mine enemies, and I shall rise again and magnify thee.”

There is a lot of theological speculation, even in Orthodox circles, about the extent and scope of our Lord’s ministry in the realm of the dead, but I as a Western Christian was unprepared for the centrality of the Harrowing of Hell, as we Westerners call it, in the Eastern tradition.   The metaphor used by CS Lewis is particularly apropos on Great and Holy Saturday.  He said, and I am quoting from memory, that our Lord’s descent into Hell  was like a strong man bending extremely low in order to get underneath a great burden, lift it to his shoulders, then stand erect, and finally, to carry it away.   This lends a cosmic dimension to the Harrowing of Hell.  All will be resurrected, but not all will find it a blessing.  I can even imagine the Classical Hades with its indistinct gloom and shivery mists as preferable to His bright and fiery presence for many souls, one of which I am in constant danger of becoming.

The most comforting interpretation of the Harrowing of Hell, though, is the one I have most recently become familiar with.  St Macarios of Egypt writes in his eleventh Spiritual Homily:  When you hear that the Lord in the old days delivered souls from hell and prison and that He descended into hell and performed a glorious deed, do not think that all these events are far from your soul… So the Lord comes into the souls that seek Him, into the depth of the heart’s hell, and there commands death, saying: ‘Release the imprisoned souls which have sought Me and which you hold by force’. And He shatters the heavy stones weighing on the soul, opens graves, raises the true dead from death, brings the imprisoned soul from the dark prison… Is it difficult for God to enter death and, even more, into the depth of the heart and to call out dead Adam from there?… If the sun, being created, passes everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled, and also souls, and, having released Adam from there, [remains] unfettered by death. Similarly, rain coming down from the sky reaches the nethermost parts of the earth, moistens and renews the roots there and gives birth to new shoots.”

So is the circle unbroken, from the depths of the heart to the farthest galaxy, from Evangelical salvationism through ancient Christianity and back again.  Hell is no more distant and no deeper than your own heart, and Christ can descend there.  Even there.


  1. petrushka1611 says

    OK, I have to step aside from the brilliance of this post (and ignoring the fact that I was JUST tonight telling my former assistant pastor about the Harrowing of Hell and nearly having a PenteBaptist shouting fit), and say….


    I am experiencing a harrowing of conflicting emotions right now. He was on my dad’s ordination committee. My church didn’t have the typical Ruckmanite tone, but his specter loomed large.

    That is all.

  2. Hi Mule,

    I would be interested to know how if you took much of your Pentecostalism with you into Orthodoxy. Or did you have to renounce it all before entering the Orthodox church?

    • Sorry – that’s a complete mess.

      Did you take any Pentecostal distinctives with you into the Orthodox church, or did you have to renounce it all?

      • I took with me a total reliance on the Holy Spirit for any possible progress in the Christian life, but that isn’t a Pentecostal distinctive. It’s just that the Pentecostals actually practice what the rest of Christendom pays lip service to.

        The gifts of I Corinthians 12 are alive and well in the Orthodox Church, although there never was a Charismatic movement anything like that in the Catholic church. Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, who promoted a 1970s Protestant style Charismaticism within the Orthodox church, was never censured, but he also was never actively promoted. He suffers from a sort of benign neglect on the part of the hierarchy and is now quite advanced in years. I don’t believe he will ever be a bishop.

        I can still ‘speak in tongues’ but it no longer defines me nor does it make me special. I remain, at best, the red-headed stepchild of the Church.

  3. I thought this was a beautiful post.

    I’d love your thoughts about the older English in the Apostle’s Creed that says: ‘he descended into hell’. I think the more recent English is better: ‘he descended to the dead’, since the Greek is literally ‘descended to the lowest’. It’s trying to distinguish between the place of the dead (hades) and the place of judgment in the NT Gospels (gehenna). Of course, the Latin is interesting (maybe more off?) with the use of the phrase ‘descendit ad inferna’. Inferna continually brings up images of the NT idea of gehenna, which I would say Jesus never entered gehenna, but hades.

    Anyways, just an inquiry with some personal thoughts. Thanks!

    • Yes (beautiful post) and yes (I’d love Mule’s thoughts) and yes (the distinction between hades and gehenna. When I try to speak of this around my Methodist brethren (whose version of the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t even include the phrase “He descended into hell”), their eyes kind of glaze over with incomprehension….

  4. “God became Meat.”

    That one’s going to stick with me for a while.

  5. Wonderful post, Mule. I taught a course on the Church year a while back, and most of the participants had never even heard of the Harrowing of Hell…Unfortunately, because “He descended into hell” isn’t a part of the UMC version of the Apostles Creed. It was interesting to hear the different opinions on what the Scripture related to the Harrowing might mean. I recommended that sometimes, the simplest idea is the most likely…That Jesus descended into Hell, preached, some heard, some wouldn’t. It’s a fascinating subject.

    I love your quote, “Every baptized Trinitarian Christian along the spectrum from Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori to Dr. Peter Ruckman ought at least once in their life to experience the full Paschal cycle of Orthodox Holy Week services.” I wholeheartedly agree. The local Greek Orthodox Church had 27 different services last year during Holy Week, with the priest presiding at all of them. We can’t even get our pastor to agree to doing a Sunday night service on a consistent basis! It says something about how serious Orthodox priests are about their faith, in my humble opinion. I also recommend that everyone should hear the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic at least once. Beautiful…

  6. I believe that much error entered the Latin church by translating the place of the dead as “Hell” with its idea of the Inferno and Eternal Torment. Jesus gave a more accurate picture in his story of Lazarus and the rich man, at least accurate at the time the story was told. Jesus may indeed have entered the inferno like with Daniel’s pals in the furnace, I don’t know, but it was certainly in the place he called Abraham’s Bosom that the main action took place.

    The Eastern church at least recognizes the clues concerning this while the Western church remains clueless for the most part. We mouth “he descended into hell” and gloss over what an extremely strange statement that is. I don’t pretend to understand just what went on but it seems to me self-evident that something huge and momentous happened between Jesus’ last breath on the cross and his Sunday morning appearance. It strikes me that it must have been legal in nature at the highest level Supreme Court with Cosmic ramifications, followed by the Ultimate Rescue Operation. Far more than you or me getting issued a Get Out of Hell Free card to carry in our wallet in case we need it. In my view the pivotal moment in all Creation.

    Mule, I am so glad to be getting your take on things here. I know you don’t speak for all of Orthodoxy but without an Eastern perspective here we are sitting on a two legged stool, and I suspect most don’t even realize why it’s so tippy. There are other occasional voices from the Eastern wing but for the most part they sound as if they don’t think it’s worth the effort with such dolts. I believe your background especially qualifies your perspective. Keep up the good work.

    • Radagast says

      Actually, some of us “dolts” as you term us really are interested, especially when the perspective is coming from someone formerly of the West. As for me, I am a Catholic who actually likes looking at the diamond from an eastern perspective, don’t always agree, but i do try to understand. And Mule… dont forget the the toll houses….and purification…..

    • Speaking as a member of the “eastern wing”, it isn’t that any of you are dolts. It is much more a problem that I believe was best summed up in a book I read, I think by Kallistos Ware. He said that if the catholics and protestants got together to write a book of theology, they could have Chapter 1: This Subject, with the catholic and then then protestant view, and the chapters could continue like that. Eastern christianity doesn’t even use the same chapter headers.

      So in a limited setting like this, it is hard to have a good conversation that gets somewhere past that language gap. (Or worse than the language gap – when we use the same word to mean two different concepts!) Mule gets to right whole posts, which helps a lot!

      • Yes… understand that eastern thought and focus can differ widely from the West. Some of the great christian mystics have lessened the gap somewhat for me. If Catholicism was to go away tomorrow I would gravitate toward Orthodoxy and the Divine Liturgy … but because of cultural divides.. the secret curse that prevents true Orthodox unity, I’d have to figure out which flavor to choose…

        • Dana Ames says

          Rad, the “cultural divides” don’t have anything to do with the “content” of the faith – it’s the same throughout all the canonical O. churches. In this country, the cultural divides are, frankly, scandalous, but also understandable if one is aware of the history of O. here. Aside from the fear in human hearts, the fault for this could ultimately be laid at the feet of the Turks – before the Turkokratia and the rules that were imposed on Christians, the flavors of the cultures were simply that – flavors, not divides.


      • Dana Ames says

        What Tokah said.

        Also, I tend to write too much, and with enthusiasm, seeing as how there is a “captive audience” – and I really don’t want to make myself or Orthodoxy seem obnoxious.


  7. Christiane says

    The Catholic Catechism quotes from an ancient Holy Saturday homily when addressing the creedal statement that has been apart of Christian faith since the very beginning, ‘He descended into hell’:

    “Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep.”

    Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” [Catechism, Profession of Faith, 635]

    I have heard that there exists a stained glass window somewhere that pictures a pregnant Mary embracing a weeping Eve . . . perhaps this sentiment is one of the crowning glories of orthodox Christianity:
    that compassion for the lost brought Our Lord to this earth and His Mission is not something that we can limit in our own human thinking as many have done who have prized their own exclusive righteousness far above the great compassion of Our God.

    • Ooh, those quotes are pure gold!

      They remind me of the passage in Job about the dwellers in the dust.

      Oddly enough, I got the idea – via my Lutheran upbringing – that some very special (and largely, to us, incomprehensible) – stuff was happening from Friday to early Sunday. But then, we have “he descended into hell” in the Apostles Creed, though I have *never* heard any Lutheran pastor preach on hell as a place of eternal, fiery torment. And I *don’t* think that has much, if anything, to do with my synod’s supposed “liberalism,” as I grew up in a conservative congregation during the 1960s. It’s much more to do with the mystery involved in Christ’s death and resurrection.

  8. Robert F says

    “…the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea….” . What strange comfort and peace I have always found in these words that celebrate a divine violence; I’ve always wondered why. I’ve been thrown headlong into the watery hell of my own heart on more than one occasion, so one might think these words would come to me as a threat and with fear, but they don’t. In them I find stillness and peace and comfort. Strange. I’m strange and God is stranger yet.

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