“Christ in Limbo” and “Descent into Hell” redirect here. For the novel by Charles Williams, see Descent into Hell (novel). For the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon liturgical play, see Harrowing of Hell (drama).
Christ leads Adam by the hand, depicted in the Vaux Passional c. 1504
In Christian theology, the Harrowing of Hell (Latin: Descensus Christi ad Inferos, “the descent of Christ into hell”) is the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell (or Hades) between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world (excluding the damned). After his death, the soul of Jesus was supposed to have descended into the realm of the dead, which the Apostles’ Creed calls “hell” in the old English usage. The realm into which Jesus descended is called Sheol or Limbo by some Christian theologians to distinguish it from the hell of the damned.
The Harrowing of Hell is referred to in the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult) which state that Jesus Christ “descended into Hell“. Christ having descended to the underworld is alluded to in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:19–20, which speaks of Jesus preaching to “the imprisoned spirits”. (The Catholic Catechism interprets Ephesians 4:9, which states that “[Christ] descended into the lower parts of the earth”, as also supporting this interpretation.) This near-absence in Scripture has given rise to controversy and differing interpretations.
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the story first appears clearly in the Gospel of Nicodemus in the section called the Acts of Pilate, which also appears separately at earlier dates within the Acts of Peter and Paul. The descent into hell had been related in Old English poems connected with the names of Cædmon and Cynewulf. It is subsequently repeated in Aelfric‘s homilies c. 1000 AD, which is the first known inclusion of the word “harrowing”. Middle English dramatic literature contains the fullest and most dramatic development of the subject.
As an image in Christian art, the harrowing is also known as the Anastasis (a Greek word for “resurrection”), considered a creation of Byzantine culture and first appearing in the West in the early 8th century.
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