By Hank Hanegraaff
First, allow me to make a confession. For most of my public ministry, I wrongly communicated that the clause, he descended into hell was a misinterpretation of 1 Peter 3:19-20. I contended that just as the Spirit of Jesus preached through Noah to the people of his day—who were then in the flesh, but at the writing of Peter’s epistles were disembodied spirits incarcerated in the prison house of hades—so, too, in the days preceding the fall of Jerusalem, the Spirit of Jesus preached through Peter to pagans drowning in dissipation. Moreover, I asserted that because this phrase did not surface until the fourth century, it could not be credibly argued that it was the profession of the early church fathers, much less the apostles. Regrettably, I was wrong!
Furthermore, I now acknowledge that Christ’s descent into hell was clearly the consensus patrum (consensus of the Fathers). Fathers who faithfully transmitted the teachings of the apostles. Fathers without whom we would not so much as have our treasured Bibles. Fathers like Irenaeus who in his youth listened to and learned from the teachings of Polycarp. Polycarp who in turn sat at the feet of the beloved apostle John. Ignatius, friend of Polycarp and a disciple of Peter and John who upon approaching his own martyrdom surrendered his body as “the wheat of Christ, ground by the teeth of beasts to become pure bread.” And this but scratches the surface. To this list could be added Justin Martyr, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzus, and a host of others. In the words of the polymath John Damascene, “Through his descent into hell, Christ opened the way of paradise for all and calls all to salvation. For some Christ’s preaching led to salvation while for others it only exposed their unbelief.” And said the venerable John Chrysostom, “this call is not coercive or forcible. Everyone is called, but not all follow the call.” For in the mercy of God there are no obstacles other than free will.
Finally, the “harrowing of hell” has been historically authenticated through the liturgies, hymnography, and iconography of the church. The Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday says in part, “Today Hades cries out groaning: I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary. He came and destroyed my power. He shattered the gates of brass.” Likewise, the church proclaimed Christ’s victory over hades in robust song. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” And the traditional icon of Holy Saturday portrays Christ, radiant in hues of blue and white, standing on the devastated gates of Hades. With one arm he unfetters Adam; with the other he liberates the Old Testament righteous.
Not until the sixteenth century did innovative interpretations of the harrowing of hell begin spreading through the church.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Ephesians 4:4–6 NKJV
For further study, see Melanie Nassif, “‘He Descended into Hell’: An Investigation of the Harrowing of Hell in the Apostles’ Creed,” Christian Research Journal 44, no. 04 (2021):10–15.
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