Thursday, May 20, 2010

1 Peter 3: The Harrowing of Hell

Three days.

Three days is the time Netflix needs to turn around my DVD rental. (And this is a good business model?) Three days is how long it takes for an electronic payment to post to my credit card company. (How is it that a mail truck could deliver it more quickly?) Three days is the maximum length of a pleasant visit to Canada. (Have you ever tried to spend a fourth day in Toronto?)

And three days is also the time that passes between Jesus's death and resurrection, according to Christian tradition.

But an interesting question has long plagued believers: what does Jesus do during those three days? Work on the Times crossword? Ponder the merits of Keynesian economic models? Think of funny costumes to wear when seeing his disciples again?

I like to picture the risen Jesus dressing up as a bear and sneaking up on Peter: "Aaaargh!" [Jesus takes off bear mask.] "Settle down, Peter. It's just me, Jesus, back from the dead. Aaaargh!" [Peter runs screaming.]

Well, early Christians actually have a better answer to this question: they call it the "harrowing of hell."

We get an important early reference to this creative doctrine in the Apostles' Creed; its authors suggest that Jesus, after he died, "descended into hell" before rising again. (If I were Jesus, I would have chosen Boca over Hades, but, well, I'm not Jesus.)

Early church fathers like Origen, Tertullian, and Hippolytus expand upon this cryptic phrase. They argue that Christ, after dying, goes down to hell, kicks Satan's ass a bit, and frees all those righteous men and women who lived before his ministry. The rationale is simple: people must believe in Jesus to gain salvation. But we need some way to save all those good Hebrew Biblical types--Adam, Isaiah, Joseph, David, etc.--who don't have an opportunity to get in on this new grace.

The harrowing of hell is hence a fantastic midrashic answer to two questions: Where is Jesus between death and resurrection? (Hell.) And are the Jewish heroes of the Old Testament damned forever? (No.)

But while the harrowing is a great idea, it's not a particularly Biblical one. Early and contemporary Christian scholars have to root around in the New Testament to come up with any good supporting evidence. The best they can do is two passages in 1 Peter:

The first comes in chapter 3: Jesus "was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey" (3:18-20). This is vague language. "Prison" is only figuratively hell, and it's hard to imagine Abraham as a hero who "does not obey," but it's a start.

The second passage comes just a chapter later, in 4:6: "For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does." Most scholars believe that the author of 1 Peter is here discussing the "dead" in a metaphorical sense--as those deaf to the Christian message. But a literal reading does help the harrowers' cause.

And it's a cause worth fighting for, because we need creative answers to the questions that the Bible asks, even if they're as fantastical as the "harrowing of hell."


  1. Working on a sermon on 1 Peter 3 and the harrowing of hell, so was pleased to find this. We Protestant preachers have avoided this topic like the plague, but it is a fascinating one to explore. John Dominic Crossan gave a great presentation on it at the fall 2010 gathering of the Jesus Seminar. See the chapter on Saturday in his book with Marcus Borg, "The Last Week".
    Thanks Joshua for your post.

  2. Thanks, I took was doing some research on the subject and this is of great help.

  3. Then again, there's Ephesians 4:8-10.

    Thanks for the image; it's the motif for the book I'm writing.

  4. Hi, just thought I'd let you know I recced your fabulous post yesterday: :)


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