Holy Saturday: devastation, anguish, hell
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand (Jn 19:41f).
The Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, the hope of Israel, the long-promised Saviour is dead. He lies lifeless in a tomb. For Christians, after the intensity of the Last Supper and the Passion, this is usually a low-key day of quiet expectation and preparation for tomorrow. And it's going to be a scorcher, so mow the lawn, go for a pint of warm English beer and get the barbeque out.
It is a much misunderstood day, seemingly of no great spiritual significance. Jesus is buried: we are left wondering and waiting. But for the Lord, it was the day he descended to Hades and conquered eternal death.
Most of the Church has forgotten the Harrowing of Hell; those who remember tend to half apologise for it. Certainly, ‘hell’ is not a helpful translation: Jesus was in Hades (ᾍδης) or Sheol (שאול) – a place of peace for some and torment for others. Following the trauma of the crucifixion, Mary was distraught, the disciples were weeping, Judas was hanging, and the Romans, Pharisees and Saducees were rejoicing. But Jesus was descending to the place of departed spirits to preach the Good News and liberate the captives.
The Apostles’ Creed says so (‘He descended into hell’ [BCP]); Aquinas affirms this in his magisterial Summa Theologica (IIIa, q52); the idea is found in some of the earliest writings of the Church Father: Irenaeus, in his tract Contra Haereses (5,31,2) says the Lord ‘tarried until the third day “in the lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:9)...where the souls of the dead were...’; and Tertullian, in A Treatise on the Soul (60), wrote: ‘With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself.’
The event is referred or alluded to numerous times in Scripture (Acts 2:31; Eph 4:8-10; 1Pt 3:18-20), and many consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) relevant, and also Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross – ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Lk 23:42f).
Here is not the place to discuss the diverse interpretations of these scriptures and expositions: it is not news that Christians disagree, not least on the soteriological implications of a ‘second chance’ of repentance after death. Whether or not this was the point of salvation for Adam and Eve, Noah, David... cannot be known this side of Glory. What we do know is that the Lord wants all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4): He wants all to see his image, repent of their sin, take on his likeness, be pure, holy, perfect. He wants everyone to know Him and to love more.
On this Holy Saturday, the final day of Lent, let our faith be made stronger; let us be more assured that sin and death are conquered; let us know a little more of the light through the sometimes impenetrable shadows. Whether the Harrowing of Hell is literal or figurative, corporeal or spiritual, it has a message for all of us today: the highest response to evil is to free people from it. Let us rejoice that our Redeemer lives.