Easter: Christ’s Descent into Hell

The Mouth of Hell, with Christ leading forth the souls of the righteous, from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.

As the tidal of wave of chocolate eggs and bunnies rolls closer, let us not forget the Descensus Christi ad inferos, the Descent of Christ into Hell between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In the days when Hell was a fashionable and relevant topic, the subject proved an absolute gift for artists, as can readily be seen in the examples I give here, from early books of hours to a late rendition by El Greco. However, if you ask people today why Christ descended into Hell, and what he actually did when he got there, the answers may be a little thin. And if you were to press further and ask what was actually meant by “Hell”, the answers might also be somewhat sketchy. This is for a variety of reasons. First the Descent, though liturgically of great importance, is not mentioned in the Gospels as an integral episode in the Passion, and is only obliquely referred to elsewhere in the New Testament. Most of us may only be aware of it from a fleeting and unelaborated mention in the Creed: “…he descended into Hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into Heaven…”. Second, the complex theology associated with the Descent, and the difficult of fully explaining what is meant by “Hell” in its context, have caused the story to take second place in the popular perception of the Easter story. The Hell to which Christ descended was not the terrible place of fire and brimstone we habitually think of. To understand fully what it is requires an awareness of Old Testament conceptions of the afterlife, which have more in common with the pagan idea of Hades, the dark and sorrowful realm of the dead.

In Hebrew scripture a clear distinction is made between Sheol, this Hades-like realm of sadness, and Gehenna, the fiery lake reserved for irredeemable wrongdoers. Over time the two were progressively conflated, until finally, in the King James Bible, Hell served as a convenient but innaccurate catch-all word for Sheol and Gehenna. The crude but serviceable roadmap of the afterlife we see in the Old Testament was eventually developed into the highly sophisticated atlas charted by Dante in The Divine Comedy. But for most Christians the black and white of Hell and Heaven still prevails, with the grey transit camp of Purgatory somewhere in between.

So, to make a wholly inadequate generalisation, it is safe enough to say that Christ descended into the Hades-Hell underworld for the specific purpose of rescuing the souls of the righteous Old Testament characters who had been languishing there since the Creation. Adam was the first in, and in most depictions the first out, Christ leading him forth by the hand, the others following close behind. Note that the conflation of Sheol and Gehenna into a single Hell gave artists the opportunity to show the unlucky souls in torment who were forced to remain, alongside the virtuous rescuees. Note also that in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the Descent has become known as the Harrowing of Hell, reinforcing an appealing concept that took root in early English poetry, e.g. in Caedmon, that Christ shook up the nether regions good and proper, that the Descent was somewhat akin to a tactical mission, a military strike. Finally note that the fullest account of the Descent we have is in a passage in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, where it provides colourful relief after a decidedly dry narrative about the Acts of Pontius Pilate. It can be read in an excellent 1924 translation by M. R. James. The tense dialogue between Satan and a personified Hades inspired a number of medieval mystery plays. Barabbas puts in an unexpected guest appearance too, on loan, as it were, from Paradise to underpin the idea that Salvation is accessible to all who have faith.

Above, the Notre Dame Book of Hours and below, the Hours of Jean, Duc du Berry. In both cases the souls of the damned are clearly visible.
Fra Angelico – comparatively restrained.

El Greco’s version, the inspiration for Rilke’s poem about the Descent.

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