Holy week passed earlier this month and with this post, I wanted to reference the Saturday between crucifixion and resurrection, that being the “Harrowing of Hell”. I always thought of the idea of Jesus going to Hell on a “rescue” mission to save souls was quite intriguing. So where does one go to read about this holy expedition? For this post, I am going to refer to the apocrypha text “The Gospel of Nicodemus”. This text survives in various manuscripts and is usually split into two parts, the second part relating to the descent into hell. So I will be referring to that section, and the Greek source version, for my overview. Depending on what manuscript source and translation you read, the story will slightly change, so keep that in mind.
This second part of the Gospel of Nicodemus starts with word spreading of Jesus being resurrected from the dead, as well as other people. Among these are chief priests. A group of men meet with these resurrected priests and have them explain how they are alive, thus begins the story of the harrowing of Hell.
Chapter 2 takes place in Hades. It is completely dark and those souls who are trapped there are asleep. A light shines and this awakens those who have been there since creation. The old prophets and alike greet each other as they are happy that they can now see. The Prophet Hesaias proclaims the light to be from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. While the light was illuminating Hades, a figure walks towards them. They question who it is and the figure answers that he is John (the Baptist). He proclaims that the Son of God is coming and begins teaching those what to expect.
Chapter 3 is a discourse between Adam and his son Seth. Adam tells Seth he wishes to inform the others where he (Adam) had sent them due to his sickness (original sin). Seth spoke to the others and said this: “When my father Adam, the first created, was about to fall once upon a time into death, he sent me to make entreaty to God very close by the gate of paradise, that He would guide me by an angel to the tree of compassion and that I might take oil and anoint my father, and that he might rise up from his sickness: which thing, therefore, I also did.” Once he said this, an angel appeared to Seth and told him that this oil would not be found now. It would only be much later when the Son of God would come in the flesh, and anoint him, then wash away his “sickness”, would Adam and others be free of every disease. Once everyone heard this story, this corresponded with what John was proclaiming hence it caused much rejoicing.
Chapter 4 is interesting. It features a discussion between Satan and Hades (the ruler, not the place). Some may think, are the two the same? No, they aren’t. Satan causes problems among mankind and gets his hands dirty with everything. Hades is the ruler of the underground, and hence, stays there, not interfering with matters of men. The conversation starts with Satan telling Hades that a Jew by the name of Jesus is coming. He has performed various miracles in the world by healing the sick and casting out demons with just a single word. They must be ready to secure him once he arrives. (for a moment, just imagine these two plotting to capture Jesus, lol) Hades, being the voice of reasoning between the two, replies back saying if Jesus is this powerful, there is nothing that they can do to stop him. Satan sort of mocks Hades and told him that he had the Jews crucify him in the world that led to the death of Jesus. Hades speaks of how one by the name of Lazarus had come to Hades but was brought back to life with a single word and that they should not underestimate Jesus. Personally I find this argument between Satan and Hades to be quite entertaining. Hades seems to be the more reserved type, just doing his job at keeping the underworld in order and Satan is being arrogant thinking that this Jesus fellow is going to be easy to take down. Hades understands the power that the Son of God has, and Satan is underestimating it.
Chapter 5 is about the entrance of Christ. While Satan and Hades were going back and forth, a thundering voice announced: “Lift up your gates, O ye rulers; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in”. Satan orders his demons to charge after Jesus while Hades tells his minions to stand guard. Once again, you got Satan being brazen in his confidence while Hades understands the power that Christ really holds and worries what will happen if Jesus succeeds. The souls trapped in hell start getting antsy and mock Hades, telling him to open the gates. You have various figures such as Hesaias and David yelling at Hades to open the gates. In a last-ditch effort of ignorance, Hades questions “Who is this King of Glory?” An angel then made the announcement which then caused all of Hade’s reinforcements to obliterate. Christ now enters into Hades and all of the underworld is lit up.
This is the half way point of the story. What I love about this story is the visual imagery that I see when reading it. Sure, there are allegorical concepts throughout the story (“one must go through hell to find heaven” comes to mind) but taken literally, I can see how this would translate to a stage play.
Chapter 6 has Hades crying out in defeat yet praising Jesus indirectly. Once Jesus enters the scene, he grabs Satan by the head and hands him to his angels, stating “With iron chains bind his hands and his feet, and his neck, and his mouth”. This is giving off Revelations 20:1-3 vibes (ESV translation):
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit[a] and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
Jesus tells Hades to keep Satan secure until his (Jesus) second coming. This leads into Chapter 7, which is all about Hades scolding Satan for what he had done. If Satan didn’t have Jesus crucified, then he would not have descended into Hell. Every action has a reaction. Now the underworld has lost all it’s souls and Hades has lost his power.
Chapter 8 has Christ raising Adam from the underworld as well as the other saints and prophets. Pictured above is an icon of that scene and it is quite a popular icon in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Below the feet of Christ is the broken down gates of Hades.
Chapter 9 has Adam being delivered to the Archangel Michael, and as they walked through the gates of Paradise, there are already two men there. The two who never went to Hades are Enoch and Elijah (spelled “Helias” in this Greek source). This fits the narrative of those two having ascended to Heaven in their respective stories.
Chapter 10 introduces another man who has not been in Hades. This person is holding a cross upon his shoulders. He introduces himself as a robber and a thief and was crucified along with Jesus. He asked Jesus not to forget him, and Jesus told him “Amen, amen: today, I say unto thee, shall thou be with me in paradise.” Once the man had died, he ended up at the gates of Paradise and was let in by the Archangel Michael. He was told to wait as soon as he got in, as Adam and the other forefathers are coming right behind him.
Chapter 11 returns to the characters from the first chapter closing up the story and handing their writings over men they were talking to, before disappearing.
Normally I do not read religious / esoteric texts in a literal fashion, but this particular story lends itself so well to such a vivid interpretation. Viewing it through an allegorical lens, I hearken to my previous quote of the phrase “One must go through Hell to reach Heaven”. I find it to be similar to one facing their “dark night of the soul”. Once you come out of that stage, you are “resurrected” into a new spiritual being, and hence that is what this story represents to those lost souls that were trapped in Hades.
I will not be comparing this to the Latin versions, but if you want an “expanded” version of the story, then check those out as they add a bit more to each chapter, as well as some name differences, etc… Personally I find the Greek translation fine and to the point.
Read the Gospel of Nicodemus part 2 here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelnicodemus-roberts2.html
The John the Baptist and Satan & Hades pictures were made in Midjourney. The other photos are traditional Christian iconography / art.