“He descended to Hell”? – The Harrowing of Hades


If you are like me, you have wondered why Jesus “descended into Hell” as the Apostles Creed puts it, and what He was doing down there.  What exactly does this mean?  What did Jesus do?  Some frankly heretical teaching have circulated such as that Jesus never descended to the place of the dead, or that He was tortured for our sins in Hell (an unacceptable view for a variety of important reasons). The orthodox teaching is that Jesus descended to the region of the dead, “preached liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1) and “led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8).   I believe that the stirring account which follows will forever impress upon you the power and majesty of those succinct words from Scripture.  


In the painting here, Jesus is depicted with his nail-pierced hand lifting Adam from the grave. In depictions of the Harrowing (Eastern or Western), Jesus lifts Adam by the wrist – the grasp is gratefully received in love, but Adam does not contribute his own strength to the saving work of Jesus. This is a very active image, with Jesus’ robe flowing out behind Him as He storms enemy territory. On either side, the saints worship and discuss eagerly the salvation the Christ has wrought.  Death lies bound and trampled down by Jesus nail-pierced feet. The shattered remains of the gates and keys are strewn around his defeated form.  Read on for the traditional, action-filled account of Jesus’ victory over the grave.

This particular story of Jesus’ Harrowing of Hades is from the so-called “Gospel of Nicodemus”, included in the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection from some time around the 300’s. This account was perhaps passed down orally until written down, or more probably was an imaginative rendering of the basic biblical and liturgical tradition.  It weaves a surprising amount of Old Testament quotations into a narrative in which Jesus ultimately shatters the fortress of the underworld and throws Satan by the head into… well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

The story picks up several days after the resurrection of Jesus.   The chief priests have imprisoned Joseph of Arimethia, but he miraculously escaped.  The Roman guards who were at Jesus’ tomb have been bribed, and assured that the Synagogue rulers will speak on their behalf to ensure they are not punished. But the reports of Jesus’ resurrection seem unquenchable.  The ancient text continues…

And after a few day men came to the chief priests, and said to them and to the people: “Jesus, whom you crucified, we have seen in Galilee with his eleven disciples upon the Mount of Olives, teaching them, and saying, ‘Go into all the world, and proclaim the good news; and whosoever will believe and be baptized shall be saved; but whosoever will not believe shall be condemned.’ And having thus spoken, he went up into heaven.  And both we and many others of the five hundred besides were looking on…”

And when these stories had been heard by all the people, the crowd came together into the temple, and there was a great commotion. For many said: “Jesus has risen from the dead, as we hear, and why did you crucify him?” And Annas and Caiaphas said: “Do not believe, ye Jews, what the soldiers say; and do not believe that they saw an angel coming down from heaven.”

[Joseph of Arimithea – having miraculously escaped from custody – is located and summoned to the chief priests by a very gracious and apologetic letter].

…Annas and Caiaphas, the chief priests, having summoned him to the temple, said to him: “Give glory to the God of Israel, and tell us the truth. For we know that thou didst bury Jesus; and on this account we laid hold of thee, and locked thee up in the prison. Thereafter, when we sought to bring thee out to be put to death, we did not find thee, and we were greatly astonished and afraid. Moreover, we prayed to God that we might find thee, and ask thee. Tell us therefore the truth.”

Joseph said to them: “In the evening of the Preparation, when you secured me in prison, I fell a-praying throughout the whole night, and throughout the whole day of the Sabbath. And at midnight I see the prison-house that four angels lifted it up,  holding it by the four corners. And Jesus came in like lightning, and I fell to the ground from fear. Taking hold of me, therefore, by the hand, he raised me, saying, “Fear not, Joseph.” Thereafter, embracing me, he kissed me, and said, “Turn thyself, and see who I am.” Turning myself, therefore, and looking, I said, “My lord, I know not who thou art.” He says, “I am Jesus, whom thou didst bury the day before yesterday.” I say to him, “Show me the tomb, and then I shall believe.” He took me, therefore, by the hand, and led me away to the tomb, which had been opened. And seeing the linen and the napkin, and recognising him, I said, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”;  and I adored him. Then taking me by the hand, and accompanied by the angels, he brought me to my house in Arimathæa, and said to me, “Sit here for forty days; for I go to my disciples, in order that I may enable them fully to proclaim my resurrection.”

When Joseph had thus spoken, the chief priests cried out to the people with disdain: “We all know Jesus’ father and mother; how can we believe that he is the Christ?” One of the Levites answered and said: “I know the family of Jesus: noble-minded men, great servants of God, and receiving tithes from the people of the Jews. And I know also Symeon the elder, that he received him when he was an infant, and said to him: ‘Now thou sendest away Thy servant, O Lord.’ “

[Through various testimonies, some of the chief priests began to be convinced that Jesus was raised.]

And Joseph cried out: “And why do you wonder that Jesus has risen? But it is more wonderful that He has not risen alone, but He has also raised many others of the dead who have appeared in Jerusalem to many. And if you do not know the others, Symeon at least, who received Jesus, and his two sons whom He has raised up— them at least you know. For we buried them not long ago; but now their tombs are seen open and empty, and they are alive, and dwelling in Arimathæa.”

They therefore sent men, and they found their tombs open and empty. Joseph says: “Let us go to Arimathæa and find them.”

Then rose up the chief priests Annas and Caiaphas, and Joseph, and Nicodemus, and Gamaliel, and others with them, and went away to Arimathæa, and found those whom Joseph spoke of. They made prayer, therefore, and saluted each other.

Then they agreed to come with them to Jerusalem. They were brought into the synagogue, and the chief priests secured the doors. They placed in their midst the old covenant of the Jews; and the chief priests said to them: “We wish you to swear by the God of Israel and Adonai, and so that you tell the truth, how you have risen, and who has raised you from the dead.”

The men who had risen having heard this, made upon their faces the sign of the cross, and said to the chief priests: “Give us paper and ink and pen.” These therefore they brought. And sitting down, they wrote thus:—

O Lord Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life of the world, grant us grace that we may give an account of Your resurrection, and Your miracles which You did in Hades.

We then were in Hades, with all who had fallen asleep since the beginning of the world. Now when we were set together in the deep obscurity of darkness, suddenly there came a golden heat of the sun and a purple and royal light shining upon us.  For at the hour of midnight there rose a light as if of the sun, and shone into these dark regions; and we were all lighted up, and saw each other.

And straightway our father Abraham was united with the patriarchs and the prophets, and they were filled with joy.

And immediately Adam, the father of the whole race of men, together with all the patriarchs and prophets, rejoiced, saying: “This light is the author of everlasting light which did promise to send unto us his co-eternal light!”

And Isaiah cried out and said: “This is the light of the Father, even the Son of God, according as I prophesied when I lived upon the earth: ‘The land of Zabulon and the land of Nephthalim beyond Jordan, of Galilee of the Gentiles – the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them did the light shine.’ And now hath it come and shone upon us that sit in death.”

And as we all rejoiced in the light which shined upon us, there came unto us our father Simeon, and he rejoicing said unto us: “Glorify ye the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; for I received him in my hands in the temple when he was born a child, and being moved of the Holy Ghost I made confession and said unto him: ‘Now have mine eyes seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.” And when they heard these things, the whole multitude of the saints rejoiced yet more.

Then there came into the midst another, an ascetic from the desert; and the patriarchs said to him: “Who are you? And he said: “I am John, the last of the prophets, who made the paths of the Son of God straight, and proclaimed to the people repentance for the remission of sins. And the Son of God came to me; and I, seeing Him a long way off, was moved by the Holy Ghost and said to the people: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’  And with my hand I baptized Him in the river Jordan, and I saw like a dove also the Holy Spirit coming upon Him; and I heard also the voice of God, even the Father, thus saying: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’  And on this account He sent me also to you, to proclaim how the only begotten Son of God is coming here, that whosoever shall believe in Him shall be saved, and whosoever shall not believe in Him shall be condemned. On this account I say to you all, in order that when you see Him you all may adore Him, that now only is for you the time of repentance for having adored idols in the vain upper world, and for the sins you have committed, and that this is impossible at any other time.  I declare unto you that he is at hand to visit us, even the day spring, the Son of God, coming from on high unto us that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

And when father Adam who was first created heard this, even that Jesus was baptized in Jordan, he cried out to Seth his son, saying: “Declare unto thy sons the patriarchs and the prophets all that thou didst hear from Michael the archangel!  – when I sent thee unto the gates of paradise that thou mightest entreat God to send thee his angel to give thee the oil of the tree of mercy to anoint my body when I was sick.”

Then Seth drew near unto the holy patriarchs and prophets, and said: “When I, Seth, was praying at the gates of paradise, behold Michael the angel of the Lord appeared unto me, saying: ‘I am sent unto thee from the Lord: it is I that am set over the body of man. And I say unto thee, Seth, vex not thyself with tears, praying and entreating for the oil of the tree of mercy, that thou may anoint thy father Adam for the pain of his body: for thou wilt not be able to receive it save in the last days and times, save when 5500 years are accomplished: then shall come into the earth the only begotten Son of God, being made man; and He shall anoint him with this oil, and shall raise him up; and shall wash clean, with water and with the Holy Spirit, both him and those out of him, and then shall he be healed of every disease; but now this is impossible.

When the patriarchs and the prophets heard these words, they rejoiced greatly.

And when all were in such joy, came Satan the heir of darkness and chief of death, and said to Hades:

“O all-devouring and insatiable, hear my words. There is of the race of the Jews one named Jesus, boasting himself to be the Son of God; but being a man who fears death. By our working with them the Jews have crucified him: and now when he is dead, be ready that we may secure him here. For I know that he is a man, and I heard him also saying, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.  He has also done me many evils when living with mortals in the upper world. For wherever he found my servants, he persecuted them; and whatever men I made crooked, blind, lame, lepers, or any such thing, by a single word he healed them; and many whom I had got ready to be buried, even these through a single word he brought to life again.”

Hades said: “And is this man so powerful as to do such things by a single word? Or if he be so, can you withstand him? It seems to me that, if he be so, no one will be able to withstand him. And if you say that you heard him dreading death, he said this mocking you, and laughing, wishing to seize you with the strong hand; and woe, woe to you, to all eternity!”

Satan said: “O all-devouring and insatiable Hades, are you so afraid at hearing of our common enemy? I was not afraid of him, but I tempted him, and have stirred the Jews with envy and wrath against him, and they crucified him, and gave him also to drink gall with vinegar.  His death is nigh at hand, that I may bring him unto thee to be subject unto thee and me.  Make ready, then, in order that you may lay fast hold of him when he comes.”

Hades answered: “Heir of darkness, son of destruction, devil, you have just now told me that many whom you had made ready to be buried, be brought to life again by a single word. And if he has delivered others from the tomb, how and with what power shall he be laid hold of by us? For I not long ago swallowed down one dead, Lazarus by name; and not long after, one of the living by a single word dragged him up by force out of my bowels: and I think that it was he of whom you speak. Perchance it is he which by the word of his command did restore to life Lazarus which was four days dead and stank and was corrupt, whom I held here dead.”

Satan the prince of death answered and said: “It is that same Jesus.”

When Hell heard that he said unto him: “I adjure thee by thy strength and mine own that thou bring him not unto me. For at that time I, when I heard the command of his word, did quake and was overwhelmed with fear, and all my ministries with me were troubled. Neither could we keep Lazarus, but he like an eagle shaking himself leaped forth with all agility and swiftness, and departed from us, and the earth also which held the dead body of Lazarus straightway gave him up alive. Wherefore also I adjure even you, for your benefit and for mine, not to bring him here; for I think that he is coming here to raise all the dead. And this I tell you: by the darkness in which we live, if you bring him here, not one of the dead will be left behind in it to me.”

While Satan and Hades were thus speaking to each other, there was a great voice like thunder, saying: “Lift up your gates, O you rulers; and be lifted up, you everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in.”

When Hades heard, he said to Satan: “Go forth, if you are able, and withstand him.” Satan therefore went forth to the outside. Then Hades says to his demons: “Secure well and strongly the gates of brass and the bars of iron, and attend to my bolts, and stand in order, and see to everything; for if he come in here, woe will seize us.”

The forefathers having heard this, all began to revile him, saying: “O all-devouring and insatiable! Open, that the King of glory may come in.”

David the prophet says: Do you not know, O blind, that I when living in the world prophesied this saying: “Lift up your gates, O you rulers?”  And also, “Let them give thanks unto the Lord, even his mercies and his wonders unto the children of men; who hath broken the gates of brass and smitten the bars of iron in sunder? he hath taken them out of the way of their iniquity.”

Isaiah says: “I, foreseeing this by the Holy Spirit, wrote: The dead shall rise up, and those in their tombs shall be raised, and those in the earth shall rejoice. And where, O death, is your sting? Where, O Hades, is your victory? ‘The dead shall arise, and they that are in the tombs shall be raised, and those that are in the earth shall rejoice, for the dew which cometh of the Lord is their healing?’ “And where O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?'”

There came, then, again a voice saying like the rushing of wind and power of thunder: “Lift up the gates.”

Hades, hearing the voice the second time, answered as if forsooth he did not know, and says: “Who is this King of glory?”

The angels of the Lord replied: “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle!” And immediately with these words the brazen gates were shattered, and the iron bars broken, and all the dead who had been bound came out of the prisons, and we with them. And the King of glory came in in the form of a man, and all the dark places of Hades were lighted up.   The Lord of majesty appeared in the form of a man and lightened the eternal darkness and broke the bonds that could not be loosed: and the help of his everlasting might visited us that sat in the deep darkness of our transgressions and in the shadow of death of our sins.

Immediately Hades and death cried out, overwhelmed at the sight of such brightness in their own realm: “We have been conquered: woe to us! But who are you, that hast such power and might? And what are you, who comest here without sin who art seen to be small and yet of great power, humble and exalted, the slave and the master, the soldier and the king, who hast power over the dead and the living?  both soldier and commander, a marvelous warrior in the shape of a bondsman, and a King of glory with power over dead and living? Who art thou that sheddest thy divine and bright light upon them that were blinded with the darkness of their sins?  You were nailed on the cross, and placed in the tomb; and now you are free, and hast destroyed all our power. Are you then the Jesus about whom the chief satrap Satan told us, that through cross and death you are to inherit the whole world?”

Then the King of glory in His majesty did trample upon death, and seized the chief satrap Satan by the head, and delivered him to His angels, and said: “With iron chains bind his hands and his feet, and his neck, and his mouth.” Then He delivered him to Hades, and said: “Take him, and keep him secure till my second appearing.”

Then Hades, receiving Satan the prince, with sore reproach said unto him: “Beelzebul, heir of fire and punishment, enemy of the saints, through what necessity did you bring about that the King of glory should be crucified, so that he should come here and deprive us of our power? Why wouldest thou do this? Thou wouldest crucify the King of glory and at his decease did promise us great spoils of his death: like a fool thou knew not what thou did. For behold now, this Jesus putteth to flight by the brightness of his majesty all the darkness of death, and hath broken the strong depths of the prisons, and let out the prisoners and loosed them that were bound. And all that were sighing in our torments do rejoice against us, and at their prayers our dominions are vanquished and our realms conquered, and now no nation of men feareth us any more. And beside this, the dead triumph over us, and the captives which never could be joyful do threaten us. O prince Satan, father of all the wicked and ungodly and renegades, wherefore wouldest thou do this? O prince Satan, holder of the keys of hell, those thy riches which thou hadst gained by the tree of transgression and the losing of paradise, thou hast lost by the tree of the cross, and all thy gladness hath perished. When youhung Christ Jesus the King of glory you worked against yourself and against me. Turn and see that not one of the dead has been left in me, but all that you have gained through the tree of knowledge, all have you lost through the tree of the cross: and all your joy has been turned into grief; and wishing to put to death the King of glory, you have put yourself to death.   And now, since I have received you to keep you safe, by experience shall you learn how many evils I shall do unto you. O arch-devil, the beginning of death, root of sin, end of all evil, what evil did you find in Jesus, that you should compass his destruction? How have you dared to do such evil? How have you busied yourself to bring down such a man into this darkness, through whom you have been deprived of all who have died from eternity?”

While Hades was thus discoursing to Satan, the King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him. Then turning also to the rest, He said: “Come all with me, as many as have died through the tree which he touched: for, behold, I again raise you all up through the tree of the cross, and witness now the devil and death condemned by the tree.” And forthwith all the saints were gathered in one under the hand of the Lord. And the Lord holding the right hand of Adam, said unto him: “Peace be unto thee with all thy children that are my righteous ones.”

Thereupon He brought them all out, and our forefather Adam seemed to be filled with joy, and said: “I thank Your majesty, O Lord, that You have brought me up out of the lowest Hades.” And Adam, casting himself at the knees of the Lord entreated him with joyful tears, and said with a loud voice: “I will magnify thee, O Lord, for thou hast set me up and not made my foes to triumph over me: O Lord my God I cried unto thee and thou hast healed me; Lord, thou hast brought my soul out of hell, thou hast delivered me from them that go down to the pit. Sing praises unto the Lord all ye saints of his, and give thanks unto him for the remembrance of his holiness. For there is wrath in his indignation and life is in his good pleasure.”

Likewise also all the prophets and the saints said: “We thank You, O Christ, Saviour of the world, that You have brought our life up out of destruction.”   All the saints of God kneeled and cast themselves at the feet of the Lord, saying with one accord: “Thou art come, O redeemer of the world: that which thou didst foretell by the law and by thy prophets, that hast thou accomplished in deed. Thou hast redeemed the living by thy cross, and by the death of the cross thou hast come down unto us, that thou mightest save us out of hell and death through thy majesty. O Lord, just as thou hast set the name of thy glory in the heavens and set up thy cross for a token of redemption upon the earth, so, Lord, set thou up the sign of the victory of thy cross in hell, that death may have no more dominion.”

And after they had thus spoken, the Savior blessed Adam, stretching forth His hand and making the sign of the cross on his forehead, and upon all saints; the patriarchs, and prophets, and martyrs, and forefathers; and He took them, and sprang up out of Hades. And while He was going, the holy fathers accompanying Him sang praises, saying: “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord: Alleluia; to Him be the glory of all the saints.”

Then did holy David cry aloud and say: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, for he hath done marvelous things. His right hand hath wrought salvation for him and his holy arm. The Lord hath made known his saving health, before the face of all nations hath he revealed his righteousness.” And the whole multitude of the saints answered, saying: “Such honor have all his saints. Amen, Alleluia!”

And thereafter Habakkuk the prophet cried out and said: “Thou went forth for the salvation of thy people to set free thy chosen.”

And all the saints answered, saying: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. God is the Lord and hath showed us light. Amen, Alleluia.”

Likewise after that the prophet Micah also cried, saying: “What God is like thee, O Lord, taking away iniquity and removing sins? and now thou dost withhold thy wrath for a testimony that thou art merciful of free will, and thou dost turn away and have mercy on us, thou forgivest all our iniquities and hast sunk all our sins in the depths of the sea, as thou swore unto our fathers in the days of old.” And all the saints answered, saying: “This is our God for ever and ever, he shall be our guide, world without end. Amen, Alleluia.” And so spoke all the prophets, making mention of holy words out of their praises, and all the saints followed the Lord, crying Amen, Alleluia.

And setting out to paradise, He took hold of our forefather Adam by the right hand, and delivered him, and all the just, to the archangel Michael, and he brought them all into the glory and grace of paradise.

And as they were going into the door of paradise, there met them two old men, to whom the holy fathers said: “Who are you, who have not seen death and come down into Hades with us, but who dwell in paradise in your bodies and your souls?” One of them answered, and said: “I am Enoch, who was well-pleasing to God, and who was translated hither by Him; and this is Elias the Thesbite who was taken up in a chariot of fire; and up to this day we have not tasted death.  We are to live until the end of the world; and then we are to be sent by God to withstand Antichrist, and to be slain by him, and after three days to rise again, and to be snatched up in clouds to meet the Lord.”

While they were thus speaking, there came another man, lowly and common, carrying also upon his shoulders a cross. The holy fathers said to him: “Who are you, who hast the look of a robber; and what is the cross which you bear upon your shoulders?”

He answered them and said: “I, as you say, was a robber and a thief in the world, and for these things the Jews laid hold of me, and delivered me to the death of the cross, along with our Lord Jesus Christ. While, then, He was hanging upon the cross, I, seeing the miracles that were done – even miracles of nature as He was upon the cross – and I believed in Him, and entreated Him, and said, ‘Lord, when You shall be King, do not forget me.’ And immediately He said to me, ‘Amen, amen: today, I say unto you, shall you be with me in paradise.’ Therefore I came to paradise carrying my cross; and finding the archangel Michael, I said to him, ‘Our Lord Jesus the Son of God, who has been crucified, has sent me here; bring me, therefore, to the gate of Eden.’ And despite the flaming sword guarding paradise, seeing the sign of the cross, he opened to me, and I went in. Then the archangel says to me, ‘Wait a little, for there comes also the forefather of the race of men, Adam, with the just, that they too may come in.’ And now, seeing you, I came to meet you.

The saints hearing these things, all cried out with a loud voice: When they heard all these words of the robber, all the holy patriarchs and prophets said with one voice: “Blessed be the Lord Almighty, the Father of eternal good things, the Father of mercies, thou that hast given such grace unto thy sinners and hast brought them again into the beauty of paradise and into thy good pastures. Great is our Lord, and great is His strength.”

All these things we saw and heard; we, the two brothers, who also have been sent by Michael the archangel, and have been ordered to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord, but first to go away to the Jordan and to be baptized. Thither also we have gone, and have been baptized with the rest of the dead who have risen. Thereafter also we came to Jerusalem, and celebrated the passover of the resurrection. But now we are going away, being unable to stay here. And the love of God, even the Father, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

Having written these things, and secured the rolls, they gave the half to the chief priests, and the half to Joseph and Nicodemus. And they immediately disappeared: to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s