A Harrowing Saturday for Jesus

What was Jesus doing on Holy Saturday, the day between his death by crucifixion and his first Resurrection appearances that Easter Sunday? I started to suggest an answer in my post When did Jesus come back to life?, but I realise that my proposal raised more questions than it answered. I also touched on the issue in yesterday’s post The Communal Resurrection of Jesus. But there is more that needs to be said here, partly in response to the comments on those two posts. So, although Holy Saturday has passed for another year (except for Eastern Orthodox believers who celebrate it this coming Saturday), here is another post about what Jesus might have done on that day.

First, what happened on Friday afternoon? After hours on the cross, Jesus cried out “It is finished!”, and committed his spirit into the hands of God. His body then died, and its death was proved by the Roman soldiers. The lifeless corpse was taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb. The tomb remained sealed until Sunday morning.

The Harrowing of Hell, from a fourteenth century manuscriptBut this does not imply that the soul and spirit of Jesus were dead or annihilated. The biblical picture seems to be that when humans die their souls leave their bodies and go to a place of the dead, known as Sheol or Hades. This is not a place of punishment, but one of shadowy but apparently conscious existence. And the Christian tradition reflected in the Creeds, with somewhat obscure biblical support (Acts 2:31, 1 Peter 3:19, 4:6), is that the soul of Jesus also went to Hades (for which “hell”, in older English versions of the Creeds, is a misleading translation). But apparently Jesus went there not to rest like the other dead, but to announce his victory, to preach the gospel, to break open the gates of Hades (compare Matthew 16:18), and to set free at least some of those held captive there.  He seems to have transformed Hades into the Paradise which he promised to the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This is the traditional doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell.

But when he did this, was Jesus dead or alive? Or is that question meaningful? Clearly his body did not go to Hades, which is not a place for material bodies. But his soul never died, for human souls never die when their bodies do. The apostle Peter seems to teach that Jesus went to Hades after he had been “made alive in the Spirit”, or “… the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18-19). Perhaps Peter means that Jesus was spiritually alive while this happened, but his body was still dead. Or Peter could mean that this took place after his Resurrection, but this would make the sequence of events even more obscure.

So what did happen to Jesus’ body? A normal human body would have started to decay immediately, and would soon have started to smell (compare John 11:39). But we read that the body of Jesus did not decay (Acts 2:31). Instead, as the apostle Paul writes, it seems to have been transformed into a new resurrection body, in a process analogous to a seed being planted and growing into a new plant (1 Corinthians 15:36-38). But just as in the natural this process takes time, so we can understand that time may be needed for this spiritual transformation of a body.

Meanwhile what happened to those whom Jesus released from Hades? At least some of these people can probably be identified with the “holy people who had died” who appeared in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Resurrection (Matthew 27:52-53). Now these people, unlike Jesus, had presumably mostly been dead for a long time, so their bodies would have decayed, and their bones had most likely been collected into ossuaries, according to the practice of the time. I suppose we must imagine these ossuaries breaking open, and the bones arranging themselves into skeletons and then putting on flesh, as in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life (Ezekiel 37:7-8). But this was a process which might have taken some time.

So perhaps I will take back my suggestion that on Holy Saturday Jesus and these “holy people who had died” were simply resting and waiting for Sunday morning. Rather, the living soul of Jesus was busy freeing the souls of these saints from Hades, while in tombs on earth he was preparing their new resurrection bodies along with his own. To take the idea from Phil Groom’s comment, that day was a time not for “Rest in Peace” but for “Resurrection in Progress”. Then on Sunday morning the souls of Jesus and the other departed came together with their new bodies, and the great Resurrection took place, of Jesus and together with him of the Old Testament saints.

17 thoughts on “A Harrowing Saturday for Jesus

  1. An iteresting discussion, Peter! You have been gracious up ’til now in allowing me to think out loud in this comment box. I hope you will forebear as I do so again.

    In my own writing and teaching, I have found myself more than once faced with the questions of Holy Saturday. Lacking Scripture, we have only the speculations of the ages. Christian hymnody has had Jesus very much at rest on Saturday in a Sheol from which he surely awakes and when wakening, must then awake the many but not all:
    David slumbering, with Goliath snoring nearby. The one has been a sheep of the Good Shepherd and has always trusted his lord and so hears his voice, leaving the reprobate old son of Anor to his fitful and disturbing dreams.
    Moses and Amunhotep, III sleep near each other — they were once well-aquainted — yet only one is plucked out of that spot because the other served Amun and himself alone.

    Can you imagine the glory of God made manifest as the last, the long-awaited, the true anointed of God preached liberty to those many captives? And can you even imagine the scene at the throne of the Ancient One when his young but ageless Son of Man made his lordly debut, bringing clouds, myriads, of angels and saints to the throne of grace? We have it in the briefest brief in Daniel 7 and on the many occasions when Jesus expressly quotes Daniel 7:13 but to borrow from the apostle Paul, we can scarcely conceive of or imagine the infinite majesty of Jesus coming with clouds into his glory!

    The only question is when? He tells the earliest witnesses to his resurrection on Sunday morning that they must not touch him as he has not yet been glorified. Later, of course, he even invites Thomas to put his finger on the scars and he cooks for and eats with some of the original “Twelve.” So the suggestion is, he did not lead the captives from Sheol until some time after he first appeared on Sunday.

    In fact, that detail does fit with the passage you/we looked at over the weekend, Matthew 27:51-53. These ancient holy folk who appeared from the crucifixion-earthquake-broken tombs to many after the resurrection of Jesus would have been present in the city only until their Shepherd led them to the heavenly throne as a part of his massive entourage when he was glorified. Depending on when Jesus was glorified they might have only been in the city for a few hours. So, when did Jesus leave earth for heaven to present himself and these souls to his Father? I do not think we can know as we have not been told. However, the glorification of the Son of Man with clouds of angels
    and saints does appear to have happened on or after early Sunday morning.

  2. I know this is not on point, however, I think it is worthy of comment that Jesus himself had a faith-bolstering experience less than a dozen days before his death.

    You, Peter, reference the “sign” which John shares and which we observe in John, chapter 11. After getting an urgent message, Jesus does not hurry to the aid of his friend Lazarus but stays where he is. He comes along more slowly and allows his friend Lazarus to die and to be in the grave for days before he gets to his home in Bethany (just east of Jerusalem).

    Then, after some affecting and lesson-filled scenes with the deceased’s sisters, Jesus, out loud, prays a prayer of thanks to his father for preserving the remains of his dead friend for all those days in the tomb. This, before he calls Lazarus to come out of the tomb. And so we learn that Jesus had prayed days earlier that Lazarus might not “see corruption.”

    I call this a faith-bolstering event because Jesus, a fully human creature (as well as the fully incarnate presence of the living God) had to do what he did by faith just like any other living person. What his father gave Jesus in the death and resurrection of Lazarus was a living-color demonstration — for Jesus’ benefit as much or more than for the others — of the fully present, on-the-earth power of God to save by doing pretty much anything. Did Jesus ask for such a sign? It is hard to say, but surely his loving father lavished on the Son of Man a gift for which Jesus promptly gave thanks! Thoughts some time?

  3. Trace, thank you for your comments. I like what you say about Lazarus, and about Jesus getting a boost to his own faith through this incident. But I’m not convinced about Jesus’ Sunday afternoon trip to heaven with all those saints. I would link that either to his ascension or to his second coming. The risen Jesus allows Thomas to touch him but not Mary to hold him, so no real inconsistency there.

  4. Peter.
    I too see the passage from Daniel 7, which Jesus quotes so often, as speaking finally to his return in the flesh at the end of our age. Yet Jesus utters prophecy and it is always a mistake to pin prophecy to any single event or fulfillment.

    Read, for instance, Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 40 carefully. You will see they each had a fulfilment in the time of the prophet and then were more fully brought to fruition in the advent of messiah Jesus.

    I teach my students to never count prophecy as fully fulfilled, even when it has been so before. It has often made our hermeneutic wooden and clumsy when we have conflated prophecy and narrative. I suspect prophecy functions as differently from narrative as it does from proverb.

  5. Peter.
    I have read the Jeremy Myers posts. I cannot figure out why anyone would want to avoid saying that Jesus, a human being, went, after he died, to the very same place everyone always went in that era after they died. Jesus was surely obedient to all the creation-law of his father and did not set himself aside from the ways of death. I must be missing something.

    In any case, missing whatever I am missing, I think the answer to the problem of Jesus descending “into hell” is to be found in what might be a corrolary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that what Jesus touches, regardless of what it might have been before, is never the same afterward, for better or ill.

    I mean this. If Jesus descended to Sheol, the place to which the dead invariably went but he was then awakened from the sleep of Sheol at some point by the power of God’s Spirit unto a resurrection, as Paul declares in Romans 1, and then he preached to the prisoners of that place, he would thereby have awakened those who were immediately destined to reign with him in heaven until the end of our age.

    And so David and Moses and Boaz and the Israelite slave girl in the service of Naaman’s wife and myriads of others awoke at the sound of his voice. They, together with their lord, then left Sheol, the place of the dead where none can praise God, and in their leaving, something new came into existence which never before had truly existed, namely Hell.

    If you follow me, as long as the people of God were present, the place was the neutral Sheol. Yet once the Lord of Glory and all the saints and the martyrs from righteous Abel to Zechariah, son of Barachiah, left the place, they took with them any semblance of the presence of God. And in the complete absence of anything other than the sustaining power of God by which all things subsist, the place instantly became Hell.

    As such then, Jesus does not and never could descend into the tiny thing, as Lewis aptly suggests, which is Hell. Jesus, rather, went as everyone who had ever died did, to Hades/Sheol. Yet the instant he and “the clouds” leave, it ceases to be that place and shrinks down to the infintessimal nothing which is our present Hell.

    Does that make sense of the texts? With this idea in mind, many churches have ceased to recite, “he descended into Hell” in their creedal observances but instead, in many hymnals and books of worship order, the Apostles’ Creed now reads, “…he descended into the place of the dead” or more simply, “…he descended into Sheol.”

    If you find this an unsatisfactory approach to this issue, please help me see what is behind all this that I am missing that is important to you. (I feel like I have walked on a grave. Have I?)

  6. Trace, thank you for your wise words about prophecy. I never claimed to agree with Jeremy, just that he had also thought about this issue. Thanks also for developing further the thoughts I started on about Jesus transforming Sheol. However, I see hell today as something different, the destination of those who are rejected at the final judgment, after they have been resurrected out of the paradise which was Sheol.

  7. I am sure you would agree, Peter, our conversation has gotten into the deep weeds of speculation, holy and imaginative speculation, to be sure but too many strings stretched across a paltry few points of biblical reference. If Paul and James the Tzaddik could differ on the issues of Romans 14 — as they most surely did — we can differ about Saturday, Sheol, harrowing, Paradise and Hell. As my wife loves to tell me, her escatology is Pan-mil: since Jesus is in charge it will all pan out in the end!

    I am convinced that when Paul called upon the assemblies to be of one mind in King Jesus he did not at all mean “be uniform in all your thinking.”

    I finally got that post of strange comments done and published moments ago and am off to teach. God bless!

  8. Interesting post Peter. I regret it’s not until today that I’ve read it.

    Over the years, I’ve picked up an anxiety among evangelicals about the harrowing of hell, despite the Nicene Creed. I’m not sure why.

    How it strikes me is much as I think you’ve described it. When Jesus died, bearing all human sin, his human nature meant that according to the course of nature, he went to the place where all dead humans go. That is Sheol/Hades. The Devil who since the fall holds all humans in captivity, thought he had defeated God.

    But Jesus’s divine nature also meant that death could not defeat him, Sheol/Hades could not hold him. He was more than it could digest. It burst. He could release those that were there waiting for them, leading captivity captive.

    It seems to me that this fits very neatly with both those who find a Christus Victor and a substitutional model the more helpful way to understand atonement.

    I have to admit I’m not very troubled by the question why this took 24-36 hours. Eternal life doesn’t operate within human timescales. But I like the question what might have happened to Jesus’s body while it was waiting in the tomb for the Resurrection. Perhaps, being without sin, it did not decompose but remained incorruptible. This seems to have happened to some saints, even though they would not have been perfect. However, in this life at least, we shall never know, and don’t really need to.

  9. Thank you, Dru. I think the anxiety some feel is because they think the Creeds are saying that Jesus went to the place of punishment, because the word “hell” was used in misleading translations. But I don’t think anyone has really taught that.

  10. Thanks Peter. I’d never thought of that as a possible explanation. You may be right. I’d always sort of imagined it might be a hangover from medieval perceptions of Doom, and therefore assumed to be non-reformed.

  11. Pingback: Are we clutching at straws? | Richard's Watch

  12. Well, I have learned two new and very interesting terms: “neutral Sheol” and “pan-mil” one being theologically speculative and the other practically speculative but both very creative.

    I guess “neutral” wouldn’t be entirely wrong though since Abraham and Lazarus, who were close enough to see and talk to the rich man, didn’t seem to feel his torment. Interesting!

    I like to believe my ideas about the millennial period are correct but correct or not your wife is right Trace. It will all pan out in the end.

  13. Ennis, I’m pleased that I and my commenters could help you.

    The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a difficult one, because it offers a picture of life after death which doesn’t fit in at all well with other biblical teaching. But it does, I think, fit with contemporary Jewish ideas. Jesus was of course quite capable of fitting in with his cultural framework. So perhaps we should see it as what it is, a story to illustrate the importance of caring for the poor, and not as what it does not claim to be, authoritative teaching on the afterlife.

  14. Peter!
    Several comments back, you zeroed in on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In my opinion, you nailed it. The story tells us nothing about the structures of heaven or hell or about the possibility or impossibility of communication between paradise and perdition, nor anything about the permanence or impermanence of such things. It is, rather, a powerful indictment of those whose habit is close-fisted treatment of the poor.

    Given the continual theme of “poor-ology” throughout the law and the prophets, if you can ignore that testimony, you will even deny when someone returns from the dead.

    As Wright would say, the ethics and eschatology of Torah rush together in the perfect storm of Jesus’ message and time. Thank you, Peter.

    Oh, and EnnisP.:
    Yes, of course Karen is right. In 43-plus years of marriage I have at least learned that much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image