Easter Saturday: the calm before the storm

The Knife makes no apologies for a lot of religious posts recently, it is Holy Week after all, and in the secular mainstream media the same phenomenon is happening, with lots of genuinely fine articles.

However, Easter Saturday is a funny sort of day. Good Friday is undoubtedly solemn, and today usually feels becalmed – even though I’m working. Easter proper is round the corner, and is as often the case at this time, the weather is great , things are looking up.

If you’re Catholic though, today is the day when in the Creed :

he suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again (Nicene)

He died for our salvation, descended into hell, and rose from the dead on the third day. (Athanasian)

was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. (Apostles)

…which puzzles a lot of people, including me. “descended into hell” – what is that about? I checked the Catechism:

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.478 This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.479

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.480 Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”:481 “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”482 Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.483

634 “The gospel was preached even to the dead.”484 The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”485 Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”486 Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”487


636 By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14).

637 In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.

Otherwise referred to as the “harrowing of hell”.  Really quite a strange – at first glance – doctrine, and no doubt if you already think it’s all mumbo jumbo, it won’t change your mind. But it’s one of the key pieces of the jigsaw.

Jan Brueghel: Christ in Limbo, 1595, Galleria Colonna, Rome
Jan Brueghel: Christ in Limbo, 1595, Galleria Colonna, Rome

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