Note: this was taken from an informal, online share by David Armstrong and posted with his permission.
Jesus is dead in the tomb. We should pause for a minute to acknowledge that at least in the external world, nothing was likely very perceptively different that Sabbath. Birdsong continued unabated; flowers went on blooming; Jewish families rested from the week’s work and went to synagogue for prayer and Torah; Greek and Roman men returned once more to their quotidian labors; Pilate was probably calculating the necessary precautions to make it past the pilgrim season without a major incident. Somewhere, maybe somewhere very close by, the Romans were killing more people; more distantly we can be confident that killing generally had not stopped forever that day. Jesus was another dead man, another dead Jew: nothing, externally anyway, was any more tragic or less heartbreaking than normal as far as that went.
Internally, of course, it is a different thing when the dead man is one’s friend, teacher, or son—still more when he was one’s professed king. For Mary it may as well been, I think we can safely imagine, that the sun had not arisen to preside that Sabbath, that the moon and the stars the night before had lost their vitality. For the Eleven, a crushing realization that, once more(?), the hope of liberation had died, years of their lives slaughtered on the wood of the cross and stored away in the all-devouring earth.
It is historically plausible that Jesus was buried. Earlier scholarship sometimes doubted that plausibility on the grounds that Jesus’s crucifixion probably meant that he would have been buried in a mass grave; archaeology has since disproved that, as we have recovered at least one example of crucified people buried in tombs. Paul, our earliest writer of the Jesus Movement, knows nothing about Joseph of Aramathea, just as he also knows nothing of the “empty tomb” narratives, but he does know that Jesus was buried (1 Cor 15:3-4). The Gospels agree on Joseph’s tomb, which implies that it was a substantial early tradition, and it is not implausible on numerous counts. Even if Joseph were not a secret disciple of Jesus’s, as the Gospels suggest, he would still have an incentive as a pious Jew to see to the burial of the dead, especially a dead man widely regarded as a prophet like Jesus.
Archaeologically, there is decent reason to think that the traditional site of the tomb, at the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is a not unlikely candidate. Evidence of continual Christian pilgrimage there from before Constantine’s erection of the original church exists, the church sits atop a first-century Jewish cemetery, and the apparent distance between what is identified as the rock of Golgotha where the crucifixion took place and the tomb makes at least spatial sense for the urgency of getting Jesus buried before Shabbat. There’s a really good chance we do have Jesus’s tomb, at least, which is impressive, and also worthy of pause: we don’t know most things about most people from the ancient world. That we do perhaps know so much about Jesus, a Jewish peasant preacher from Galilee who was killed by the Romans as a seditionist and buried, and that we possibly/probably know where, is a lot to know about anyone, especially someone so notionally marginal from the historical perspective. Even if Jesus’s death had no follow-up, he has left a remarkable impact on history for a dead man, as dead men go.
In a counterfactual history we could imagine the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as though an exceptional tomb of a Jewish prophet. In a world, perhaps, where Christianity had never separated from Judaism, and Jesus had remained a character of interest however marginal within Judaism, Jesus the prophet of Jewish liberation and justice, Jesus’s tomb would perhaps be yet another edifice in Jerusalem proclaiming the hope of messianic liberation and eschatological resurrection testified by other sites Jewish and Muslim in modern Israel-Palestine. When we think about those sites, and back on the Greco-Roman world in which erecting tombs and mortuary shrines of heroes was normative, we should realize the minimum of what such a place represents. We enshrine the dead to visit them, to give them bodies of stone and marble that we can still see and touch even when theirs are hidden in the dust or mingled with it. We try to prolong their spirit’s tarrying in the world; we go, as the classic observation from Homer’s Odyssey has it, to feed them with our own blood—or else with their favorite meals—so that they will speak to us, sing and suffer with us still, live and weep with us once again. Even if this were all that could be predicated of Jesus, it would still be something, contrary to every weak apologetic argument to the contrary that Jesus’s entire significance rests exclusively in his resurrection. Plenty of dead people have been more influential dead than alive.
Christians, of course, do believe in Jesus’s resurrection, as do I, and Christians traditionally believe much more of Holy Saturday as a result. Christian hymnography compares Jesus’s body resting in the tomb to God resting on the Sabbath in the Priestly creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:3, the implication being that Jesus has recreated the world. Like God the Father, Jesus now rests from his labors and takes up residence in the chamber of his tomb. There is some grounds for this comparison, especially in the Gospel of John and the hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, in both of which Jesus plays some role in the creation of the world that is reasserted or reaffirmed or even completed by his death on the cross. By any meaningful metric, it is fair to say that the world was in fact recreated, at least conventionally, at Jesus’s crucifixion: the world that would come after that event would certainly be much different in many ways than the world that preceded it (all the ways it would be continuous aside). Metaphysically, a stream of Christian thinking tends to see the cross as the true moment of the world’s creation, begun in the distant past but only truly finished with Jesus, the New and Last Adam, put into the deep sleep of death on Golgotha, and the Church, the New and Last Eve, drawn from the wound in his side out of which gushes blood and water in John’s Gospel (Jn 19:34). The colorful typology is of course an interpretation—a conscious choice to read the data of Jesus’s death and burial from the standpoint of his resurrection and then backwards further still to the texts of the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish literature. But the Sabbath theology of Holy Saturday recasts theology, cosmology, and anthropology in the light of the cross. For Christians, traditionally, Jesus is God resting in the tomb after completing his work of creation (or new creation), having suffered the cross in the flesh; heaven and earth therefore revolve around the cross, the providential point of their completion, the new and true axis mundi, the new tree of life for the temple-city of Jerusalem; and Jesus has become truly human, as John Behr argues, by the integrity and vulnerability of the way in which he chooses to die. Holy Saturday is called, in the Eastern churches, “Great and Holy Sabbath,” and one can see why under these lenses.
But more importantly, Christians traditionally associate Holy Saturday with the Harrowing of Hell. The doctrine has some grounding in New Testament texts that mention Jesus visiting the underworld, though those are ambiguous as to time when (before resurrection or after?), purpose, and result. The NT nowhere fleshes out the full-throated doctrine of Christ’s katabasis in Early Christian literature, where Jesus descends into the underworld in his human soul, kicks in the iron gates of Death, and absolutely ransacks the place, taking every human soul back with him and leaving hell under new management. That doctrine is chiefly the product of Christian apocrypha, liturgies, homilies, and early patristic theologians; it is also essential to the hymnography and iconography of the Eastern Churches. The Western Churches have an altogether weaker narrative, in which Jesus merely saves the righteous patriarchs, prophets, and people of Israel; I will talk about why this is a bad paschal theology shortly. But first, a few observations about the Harrowing of Hell.
The first observation: the primary mythic/textual background to the Harrowing of Hell is the Baal Cycle which I mentioned in my last post about the idea in New Testament and Christian literature that God gave up Jesus to Death on the cross. In the Baal Cycle, the titular god Baal engages in theomachy with Yamm, the Sea, Yamm’s sea monster children, and then establishes himself as king of the gods, with his own mountain temple-palace on Mt. Zaphon, modern Jebel Aqra in northern Syria. Baal then announces his victory to Mot, Death, who demands him for the cosmic disruption of slaying Yamm and his children. El, the patriarchal creator god, surrenders Baal to Death; Baal goes to the underworld and is killed by Death. The gods mourn this, especially Baal‘s sister (and consort? It’s unclear) Anat, who finds Death, brutally slays him, and helps bring Baal back to life with the help of the Sun. Seven years later, Baal—a storm god of fertility and divine warrior—once more does battle with a (resurrected? reborn?) Death, probably symbolizing the inconsistent climate and its impact on the agricultural cycle in Syria-Palestine.
YHWH was associated by many Ancient Israelites and Judeans with Baal, and when Baal worship was targeted by some Yahwists, it was largely because the language, imagery, myths, and tropes of Baal had been appropriated by YHWH. Vestiges of the Baal myth in application to YHWH appear throughout the Hebrew Bible, casting YHWH in the role of storm god, divine champion, conqueror of Sea and sea dragons, future conqueror of Death (e.g., Isa 25-27), and giver of life-bringing, fecundating storms. But YHWH also appropriated the language associated with El, as an elderly, kindly, compassionate, patriarchal creator god. In later stages of Yahwism, when YHWH was envisioned enthroned in a cosmic or mystical body in heaven, and in the period of Early Judaism, YHWH’s associations with El were prioritized, and his associations with Baal were reallocated to a variety of intermediary figures in Early Jewish literature. One of these, the one like a son of man from Daniel 7:9-14, and his literary afterlife in Parables of Enoch (1 En 37-71), is almost directly drawn from the Baal myth as it was told at Ugarit, as a rider on the clouds who comes to the Ancient of Days (El/YHWH) following the slaughter of some chaotic sea monsters to receive an eternal and universal kingdom. That divine proxy or agent in creation, providence, and administrative rule, variously identified, assumes the Baal role.
Early Jewish followers of Jesus applied these mythic, literary, and theological archetypes to Jesus to explain his significance. In Paul, Jesus is the Davidic messiah who bears God’s Name and is entrusted by God with the work of the eschatological warfare against errant cosmic deities and their earthly representatives (1 Cor 15:20-28). In all four Gospels, Jesus is the Son of Man of Danielic and probably Enochic provenance too; while Paul never calls him that, he does apply some of the tropes in his description of the Parousia elsewhere (1 Thess 4:16-18). These ideas are also crucial to John’s Apocalypse, where Jesus is the heavenly Son of Man empowered to rule (Rev 1:13; 14:14). (Here I acknowledge that I disagree with the otherwise eminent David Aune who suggests in his Revelation commentary that the Son of Man of 14:14 might be a figure other than Christ. If Revelation is a pre-Christian anthology of apocalypses that has been edited into present form, that might be true; as the book now exists, it seems indisputable that the figure seated on the cloud is the same figure that appears to John in the opening vision.)
One way to think of the Harrowing of Hell is that it simply fills out the Baal myth in application to Jesus. It would seem that Anat was unknown as a goddess in Ancient Israel and Judah and that her qualities of brutal warfare and battle-madness were assimilated in some instances to YHWH (e.g., Isa 63:1-6). (Anat was apparently a goddess and consort of YHWH at the Jewish Temple in Elephantine, Egypt.) In the revised, Yahwistic, Jewish, and Christocentric version of the myth, then, Jesus alone does battle with Death, and Jesus alone is victorious, claiming his life back from Death by his own power. Another way to think of the Harrowing of Hell follows that it proleptically realizes the eschatological theomachy that Jesus’s followers otherwise expected him to fight against the forces of evil: Jesus is invading the underworld, winning the first and decisive battle in a war that will not conclude until the Parousia (though the feminine divine warrior will return in various Early Christian depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in battle with the Devil; e.g., the long interpretive history of the woman clothed with the Sun in Rev 12).
Another way to think of the Harrowing is by reference to the theological concept of Jesus’s kenosis. Christians, following Paul’s mythic narrative of Christ’s katabasis and anabasis in Philippians 2:6-11, see Jesus’s incarnation and crucifixion as evidence of “self-emptying” or “demotion” and “humility.” Jesus’s descent into the underworld is similarly his acceptance of the nadir of human existence: reduction to shadowy existence in the postmortem world.
We should not overplay the hand here. Ancient Israel and Judah had a concept of a positive afterlife in the form of the ancestor cult that was practiced domestically and in connection to the patriarchal home and tomb: to be gathered to one’s fathers in bone and psychic shade was the crown of a life well lived, and one could expect regular communication with one’s descendants who remembered one’s name, kept it alive in the world, and offered sacrificial food. The editors of the Hebrew Bible were uncomfortable with that aspect of preexilic religion, and seek to cast it as disobedience to YHWH’s covenant; but the polemic is itself revealing that it was a ubiquitous and ancient practice not easily uprooted. And for all the Hebrew Bible’s disinterest in the afterlife, Early Jewish literature was very interested in it—especially the apocalypses that showcase righteous patriarchs or prophets enjoying visionary journeys to hell, heaven, and seeing the protocols for judgment, punishment, and reward therein. In these texts, like the Book or the Watchers, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and the Testament of Abraham, repose in a pleasant place of the underworld, admission to paradise, and/or transformation into an angelic being in heaven are all desiderata. Early Jews generally believed that their patriarchal heroes, like Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, his twelve sons, Moses, David, and Elijah had undergone glorification to angelic status after death. Jesus himself speaks of the “bosom of Abraham” (all 16:19-31), which may well be our earliest complete version of an older Jewish notion of a pleasant locale in the underworld where the patriarchs will receive the righteous dead (e.g., 4 Macc 13:17). The New Testament scenes of the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36) logically imply that Moses and Elijah have both been deified to angelic status in heaven, which is what allows them to appear alongside Jesus in glorified state, as many Early Jews believed they had been.
Early Christians were both influenced by these beliefs as they developed the Harrowing of Hell and challenged by them, since on any reading at least some people end up in heaven prior to the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. So where they could, they rejected previous traditions of deification (as for David; e.g., Acts 2:34, on which see Eva Mroczek’s superlative article), and where they could not, they elaborated theories explaining the exceptions and proving the rule that in general Jesus had to save the human race from the underworld. The matter becomes even more complicated if one wants to include in one’s picture of the afterlife non-Jewish and non-Christian traditions, and one might even underestimate how strange the possible afterlives of Early Judaism were before one gets to that point: after all, at least some Jews, like Philo and Josephus’s Pharisees, believed in some form of metempsychosis (see Yli Karjanmaa’s corpus of work on the topic).
Christians can make the claim more simply: Jesus descended to the underworld to liberate the people who were there. Some Jewish precedents for a prophet visiting hell can be adduced: the seers of the Book of Watchers and the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and Jonah, in rabbinic literature, visits hell in the belly of the fish, perhaps a fruitful parallel given Jesus’s identification of the sign of Jonah as the symbol of his paschal mystery (e.g., Matt 12:38-42). But more obviously significant for Early Christians operative in the Greco-Roman world and increasingly less directly engaged with Judaism would have been the common mythic trope of the hero or demigod who descends to Hades for some kind of boon. Asklepios, Theseus, Herakles, Orpheus, Odysseus, and more all make this trek, and of them, Herakles and Odysseus have the most agency and success; in a world, moreover, that worshiped heroes as gods, the ability to go to the underworld and come back again, some boon of knowledge or gift acquired, was no mean feat and no small cause for cult. If Herakles could overpower Hades once, the thinking goes, surely he could do it for me? Early Christians realized that Jesus’s status in the Greco-Roman world depended in part on his ability to minimally match and maximally surpass the status and accomplishments of the divine humans it already knew, and so, like Jews had done in the Hellenistic period before them, they appropriated numerous mythic archetypes in their literature and portraiture of Jesus, including extending his katabasis a little more explicitly to encompass the underworld.
It is here that I will say something about what Jesus accomplished in hell and end. If Jesus merely ransomed the Old Testament righteous, one has to wonder if on the grounds of Jesus’s own teaching about Lazarus there was really much for him to ransom them from as well as what such an accomplishment would really amount to. If we’re talking about a netherworld of souls, which is seemingly the common thread regardless of what we really take Hades to be, we’re talking about 200,000-300,000 years just of human beings; to ransom a mere handful from the previous 2,000 at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion (bracketing for a moment all the problems with biblical chronology) would be almost nothing. If we are looking for gods powerful enough to save the dead from hell, and that is our model of what Jesus did, we have much better options. Ksitigarbha, the Mahayana bodhisattva, comes to mind: he has promised to be reborn infinite times until all beings are liberated from the narakas. God in rabbinic Judaism doesn’t punish people in hell forever, nor in some streams of Islamic thinking. Many Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs hold that no entity will be forever lost in punishments: no one has infinite karma to burn that way. Jesus saving all from the underworld is in fact the minimal standard of his parity with other religious options.
There’s more we could say, of course: what does it mean, for instance, to talk about Jesus descending to the underworld in an age where we do not believe, as most of the ancients generally did, that there is a literal chthonic realm in which the spiritual aspect of the dead reside beneath the earth? How to receive the kerygma in a new cosmology? Or, how to account for the pluralistic visions of the afterlife present in our sources and their contexts with the proclamation of Jesus’s conquest of hell? These are worthy inquiries. To avoid lengthening this entry further, though, I will simply say that what Christians profess to believe in believing in the Harrowing of Hell is that Jesus has gone to the lowest point in cosmic existence, whatever that might actually be, to reveal God’s liberating presence there in his own human soul. “Whither can I go from your Spirit?” asks the Psalmist: “If I ascend up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps 137:7-8). Jesus goes to make that observation a promise fulfilled for the imprisoned spirits of all humans, particularly, Christians think, those of sinners. But what presence was perceived as punishment he transmutes to comfort, what was death he turns to life.