Holy Saturday And The Harrowing Of Hell

The Descent into Hell. Basilica Cattedrale Patriachale di San Marco

(reprinted from last year)

While most Christians are familiar with the events of what happens during the Easter or Paschal Triduum, those three days between the end of Lent and Easter Sunday. Holy or Maundy Thursday is the commemoration of the Last Supper. Good Friday commemorates the Crucifixion. Holy or Black Saturday is a day that is lost on most Christians but it is critical to Christian theology. If one can only be saved through Christ, what is the fate of the Old Testament types, like Job and David and Jeremiah and Isaiah and Jesus’s father, Joseph, who, though favored of God died before the Resurrection.


Holy Thursday is commemorated in the words of the Apostle’s Creed:

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

Christian theology says that on Holy Saturday, Christ entered Hell, referred to often as Limbo to distinguish it from the damnation of Gehenna, and liberated the righteous. It is a day that is sorrowful, because Christ is in the tomb, but joyous because it is the victory over death. To quote an obscure German theologian, Martin Luther:

While according to medieval theologians the descent into hell was regarded as an act by which Christ, with His soul only, entered the abode of the dead; and while according to Calvin and the Reformed generally the descent into hell is but a figurative expression for the sufferings of Christ, particularly of His soul, on the cross, Luther, especially in a sermon delivered 1533 at Torgau, taught in accordance with the Scriptures that Christ the God-man,body and soul, descended into hell as Victor over Satan and his host.

Luther’s sermon at Torgau graphically describes the descent as a triumphant march of our victorious Savior into the stronghold of the dismayed infernal hosts. From it we quote the following: “Before Christ arose and ascended into heaven, and while yet Iying in the grave, He also descended into hell in order to deliver also us from it, who were to be held in it as prisoners … However I shall not discuss this article in a profound and subtle manner, as to how it was done or what it means to ‘descend into hell,’ but adhere to the simplest meaning conveyed by these words, as we must represent it to children and uneducated people.””Therefore whoever would not go wrong or stumble had best adhere to the words and understand them in a simple way as well as he can. Accordingly, it is customary to represent Christ in paintings on walls, as He descends, appears before hell, clad in a priestly robe and with a banner in His hand, with which He beats the devil and puts him to flight, takes hell by storm, and rescues those that are His…

“Such, therefore is the plainest manner to speak of this article, that we may adhere to the words and cling to this main point, that for us, through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed, for which purpose He died, was buried, and descended,-so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us, as He Himself says, Matt. 16, 18 … “


The day is important because it reminds us of Christ’s complete Victory over Death. He conquered not only Death in the future but Death as it has existed since the days of Adam and Eve. In releasing bound souls we are reminded that through Christ all things are possible.


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