Anyone who's attended a church service during Easter week has probably asked themselves this question: If Jesus perished on Good Friday, and was resurrected on Easter Sunday, what did he do on Holy Saturday? The Bible itself doesn't offer many clues, but we do have an answer - an event that's known as the "Harrowing of Hell."
In a nutshell, this lesser-known story about Jesus involves his descent into hell before ultimately ascending to heaven. But it's not the version of hell most of us are familiar with, and he had a specific reason for going there.
While the Harrowing of Hell might not be familiar to many modern Christians - depending on their denomination - it's long been a part of Christian theology. For the past 2,000 years, scholars and theologians have argued about what the Harrowing means, whether it happened, and whether it should be included in scripture at all.
Before we delve into the Harrowing, let's first define the timeline. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Bible's official accounts of the life and passing of Jesus Christ. And while they differ from each other on many of the details (which has lead to endless debate over the past two millennia), all four Gospels agree on a basic set of facts: Jesus was hung on the cross on Good Friday and expired at 3 pm. Joseph of Arimathea arranged for Jesus to be interred in a tomb that same day. On Sunday, one or more of Jesus' female followers visited the tomb and discovered that Jesus had been resurrected.
This leaves a chronological gap between Jesus' passing and his resurrection. What did he do in between? According to contemporary first-century Judaic theology, all humans have a soul that goes to the afterlife after they expire, which then awaits the final judgment. Since he was both the son of God and mortal, Jesus was no exception. But unlike other mortals, Jesus' journey to the afterlife had a more specific purpose.
Today, when we think of "hell," we think of a fiery underworld kingdom ruled by Satan, where the souls of sinners go after they perish to suffer eternal torment. Jesus does describe a place like this in the Gospel of Matthew. He warns the disciples against suffering the judgment of "Gehenna," a lake of fire where non-believers suffer God's judgment, which was based on a real-life trash dump near Jerusalem.
However, the location Jesus visits in the Harrowing is not Gehenna. It's also more in line with first-century beliefs about the afterlife. Throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament, it was believed that everyone, human or animal, went to the same place after they passed, regardless of their behavior in life. In Hebrew, this place was called "Sheol"; in Greek, it was called "Hades." After the mortal flesh expired, the soul went to Sheol to await its final judgment. This is where Jesus went after he passed.
The modern version of hell owes more to later writers like St. Augustine and Dante than the Bible itself.
While branches of Christianity differ on the specifics, the main draw for followers of Jesus is that accepting his teachings and repenting for their sins guarantees salvation. Moreover, salvation is only available to people who accept him.
According to this theology, the arrival of Jesus on Earth was a game-changer for people alive at the time, and for everyone who has lived after. But it also creates a problem: What about the people who lived before Jesus' birth, souls who never had the chance to learn his teachings?
The Harrowing is a theological solution to this problem. Rather than waiting for eternity, the souls of everyone who predated Jesus were saved when he visited hell before his resurrection.
The use of the word "harrowing" to describe this event might be confusing to modern readers. Here, the word "harrowing" does not mean "distressing" like we would use it today. Instead, it's rooted in an Old English word that means "to break the ground in preparation for planting." In other words, Jesus' harrowing was a means of preparing the souls of the afterlife for their eternal salvation.
When it comes to the gap between Jesus' passing and resurrection, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don't have much to say about where Jesus went. Instead, they mainly focus on what his followers do until he reappears. None of the four Gospels specifically mention the Harrowing, and this is one reason why it's been a controversial subject among Christian scholars for the past two millennia.
There is only one moment in the Gospels that deals with the deceased in relation to Jesus' passing, and it appears in Matthew 27:50-51:
But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. The tombs were also opened and many [cadavers] of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.
Unlike in the story of the Harrowing, Jesus does not venture into hell to save the deceased. Instead, they leave on their own. Furthermore, in Matthew's version, Jesus doesn't explicitly save their souls.