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Harrowing of Hell

The Harrowing of Hell is the traditional English name for an event affirmed in the Apostles Creed, which says simply that Jesus Christ "descended into Hell" (or, Hades).

Among Christians, this is perhaps the most controversial part of the Apostles Creed; it disturbs the conscience of some believers to imagine that when He died, Jesus went to Hell. In the New Testament, two passages of 1 Peter affirm the doctrine. 1 Peter 3:19-20 says that Jesus "went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient. . ." and similarly 1 Peter 4:6 says that the gospel was "preached also to them that are dead. . ." (KJV)

As such, the Harrowing of Hell was taught by all the theologians of the early church. The Old Testament affirms that Job and other righteous men went to Sheol when they died, as did David and the other psalmists. The doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell explained how these righteous people who lived before the Crucifixion were redeemed. St Melito of Sardis and St Ambrose both wrote of the Harrowing of Hell. Ambrose explains that the argument that holds that Christ could not have suffered in Hell also implies that Christ could not have suffered on the Cross. Much later, St Thomas Aquinas explained the doctrine, saying that "when Christ descended into hell, by the power of his Passion he delivered the saints from this penalty whereby they were excluded from the life of glory...."

It is sometimes on the grounds that for Christ to have descended into Hell, he would have to have borne God's curse. John Calvin, replying to this objection, observed that those who hold this objection "have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God's judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God." Christ's descent into Hell, therefore, was necessary for our atonement, because Christ did in fact endure the penalty for the sins of the redeemed.

External link:

  • The Harrowing of Hell (http://www.bib-arch.org/bswb_BR/bswbbr1903f2) by Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons

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