What Did Christ Do on Holy Saturday?

Christ Releasing the Prisoners of Dachau (Click to enlarge)Source: Religion News Service

(RNS) Every Christian knows the story: Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. But what did he do on Saturday?

That question has spurred centuries of debate, perplexed theologians as learned as St. Augustine and prodded some Protestants to advocate editing the Apostles’ Creed, one of Christianity’s oldest confessions of faith.

Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and most mainline Protestant churches teach that Jesus descended to the realm of the dead on Holy Saturday to save righteous souls, such as the Hebrew patriarchs, who died before his crucifixion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the descent “the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission,’’ during which he “opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.”

An ancient homily included in the Catholic readings for Holy Saturday says a “great silence” stilled the earth while Jesus searched for Adam, “our first father, as for a lost sheep.”

Often called “the harrowing of hell,” the dramatic image of Jesus breaking down the doors of Hades has proved almost irresistible to artists, from the painter Hieronymus Bosch to the poet Dante to countless Eastern Orthodox iconographers.

But some Protestants say there is scant scriptural evidence for the hellish detour, and that Jesus’ own words contradict it.

On Good Friday, Jesus told the Good Thief crucified alongside him that “today you will be with me in paradise,” according to Luke’s Gospel. “That’s the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection,” John Piper, a prominent evangelical author and pastor from Minnesota, has said. “I don’t think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise.”

First-century Jews generally believed that all souls went to a dreary and silent underworld called Sheol after death. To emphasize that Jesus had truly died, and his resurrection was no trick of the tomb, the apostles likely would have insisted that he, too, had sojourned in Sheol, said Robert Krieg, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

“It helps bring home the point that Jesus’ resurrection was not a resuscitation,” Krieg said.

Belief in the descent was widespread in the early church, said Martin Connell, a theology professor at the College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University in Minnesota. But the Bible divulges little about the interlude between Jesus’ death and resurrection. Churches that teach he descended to the realm of the dead most often cite 1 Peter 3:18-20.

“Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit,” Peter writes. “And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison.”  The incarcerated souls, Peter cryptically adds, were those who were “disobedient” during the time of Noah, the ark-maker.

Augustine, one of the chief architects of Christian theology, argued that Peter’s passage is more allegory than history. That is, Jesus spoke “in spirit” through Noah to the Hebrews, not directly to them in hell. But even Augustine said the question of whom, exactly, Jesus preached to after his death, “disturbs me profoundly.”  

The descent might not have become doctrine if not for a fourth century bishop named Rufinus, who added that Jesus went “ad inferna” – to hell – in his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. The phrase stuck, and was officially added to the influential creed centuries later. 

But changing conceptions of hell only complicated the questions. As layers of limbo and purgatory were added to the afterlife, theologians like Thomas Aquinas labored to understand which realm Jesus visited, and whom he saved.  

Other Christian thinkers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin disagreed on whether Christ suffered in hell to fully atone for human sinfulness. That question, raised most recently by the late Swiss theologian Hans ur von Balthasar, stirred a fierce theological donnybrook in the Catholic journal First Things several years ago.

Wayne Grudem, a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, says the confusion and arguments could be ended “once and for all” by excising the line about the descent from the Apostles’ Creed.

“The single argument in its favor seems to be that it has been around so long,” Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, writes in his “Systematic Theology,” a popular textbook in evangelical colleges. “But an old mistake is still a mistake.”

Grudem, like Piper, has said that he skips the phrase about Jesus’ descent when reciting the Apostles’ Creed.

But the harrowing of hell remains a central tenet of Eastern Orthodox Christians, who place an icon depicting the descent at the front of their churches as Saturday night becomes Easter Sunday. It remains there, venerated and often kissed, for 40 days.

“The icon that represents Easter for us is not the empty cross or tomb,” said Peter Bouteneff, a theology professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. “It’s Christ’s descent into Hades.”


  1. From SVS Press:
    Christ the Conqueror of Hell
    Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev)
    The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective

    This in-depth study on the realm of death presents a message of hope held by the first generation of Christians and the early church. Using Scripture, patristic tradition, early Christian poetry, and liturgical texts, Archbishop Hilarion explores the mysterious and enigmatic event of Christ’s descent into Hades and its consequences for the human race. Insisting that Christ entered Sheol as Conqueror and not as victim, the author depicts the Lord’s descent as an event of cosmic significance opening the path to universal salvation. He also reveals Hades as a place of divine presence, a place where the spiritual fate of a person may still change. Reminding readers that self-will remains the only hindrance to life in Christ, he presents the gospel message anew, even in the shadow of death.

    Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev), Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, is well known throughout the Orthodox Church as a leading theologian, writer, and musical composer. He holds a doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University and a doctorate in theology from St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.


    Part One
    The Descent into Hades in Scripture and Patristic Tradition
    1. The New Testament, Apocryphal Literature,and Early Christian Poetry
    Key New Testament Texts
    Apocryphal Literature
    Early Christian Poetry
    2. The Patristic Tradition
    Eastern Fathers of the Second and Third Centuries
    Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century
    Eastern Fathers of the Fifth to Eighth Centuries
    Western Church Writers
    Part Two
    The Descent into Hades in Liturgical Texts
    3. Eastern Christian Liturgical Poetry of the Fourth through Sixth Centuries: From Ephrem the Syrian to Romanos the Melodist
    The Hymns of St Ephrem the Syrian
    The Kontakia of St Romanos the Melodist
    4. Liturgical Texts of the Orthodox Church
    The Octoechos
    The Lenten Triodion
    The Pentecostarion
    The Theological Significance of Christ’s Descent into Hades
    Some Conclusions
    General Church Doctrine and Personal Opinion
    The Descent into Hades and Theodicy
    The Soteriological Implications of the
    Doctrine of the Descent into Hades
    Selected Bibliography

    Developing this theme, Romanos goes on to say that in order to find ‘the creation which has gone astray’ the Son of God came down to earth, became incarnate, ‘ascended to the cross, as a lamp in a lampstand, and from there saw ancient Adam, sitting in darkness and gloom.’ After his death Christ descends into Hades. His divinity remains united with his humanity; his light illumines and fills up the nether world. Hades tries to keep the body of Christ in its hold but Christ, ‘as though arising from sleep, enchains Hades violently and puts him down.’ Addressing himself to those in Hades, Christ says:

    ‘Rise up, all, and trample down Hades! Adam, come to me with Eve now. Do not be afraid, liable for past debts, I have paid them all, I, the Life and Resurrection.’

    • Patrick Henry Reardon says

      Archbishop Hilarion explores the mysterious and enigmatic event of Christ’s descent into Hades and its consequences for the human race. Insisting that Christ entered Sheol as Conqueror and not as victim, the author depicts the Lord’s descent as an event of cosmic significance opening the path to universal salvation. He also reveals Hades as a place of divine presence, a place where the spiritual fate of a person may still change.

      I am not certain how to understand the subject of the last sentence: “He.”

      Since the verb in the sentence is “reveals,” it can’t really be Archbishop Hilarion. If the subject of the sentence were Archbishop Hilarion, the verb of the sentence should be changed to “speculates” or “guesses,” inasmuch Archbishop Hilarion, not knowing the first thing about Hades, is hardly in a position to “reveal” anything on the matter.

      If, however, the He is the Savior himself, I would need some evidence that he taught that Hades was a place “where the spiritual fate of a person may still change.”

      We can safely proclaim that Christ our Lord “preached to the spirits in prison” without all this shaky speculation, some of which comes precariously close to heresy.

    • I have this book by Metr. Hilarion, but haven’t read it yet. My wife read it and said that it was very thorough, in more of an academic style. Her one criticism of the book was that since it was so thorough, it covers a lot of ancient opinions that did not necessarily end up being part of the consensus teaching of the Church. A casual reader could read a discussion of one of those opinions and not catch the fact that this particular teaching was not embraced by the Fathers.

      One of the things that I like about Metr. Hilarion is that he is very strongly grounded in the liturgical tradition and texts of the Church, and he understands that our received texts are of profound doctrinal authority. This is an understanding that can protect us Orthodox from all sorts of heresy and wrong belief, since our liturgical texts are thorough and precise. It is impossible to read our liturgical texts and believe that Christ’s resurrection, for instance, was merely a “spiritual resurrection,” as liberal Protestants began to believe and teach, especially during the last century — with many Catholic theologians not far behind.

  2. Gail Sheppard says

    Interesting how John Piper, the Evangelical pastor, looks at things from the theif’s point of view, believing that the theif could not be in paradise if he was in hell. What he fails to grasp is that the same limitation does not apply to Christ.

    • I don’t think that the protestant pastor has a point. The Greek concept of Hades included a paradise called the Elysian fields and the Jewish Sheol had Abraham’s bosom which seems to be somewhat equivalent.

    • As we chant the Paschal Hours multiple times a day during Bright Week, here is one thing we pray repeatedly:

      O uncircumscribable Christ, Who fillest all things,
      in the flesh Thou wast in the tomb,
      while as God Thou wast in hades with Thy soul,
      and Thou wast in paradise with the thief
      while on the throne with the Father and the Spirit.

      Christianity understood all of this long, long ago. The constant urge to try to re-invent the wheel (and doing a generally sloppy and haphazard job of it, no less) is one of the things that so many of us leave Protestantism for Orthodoxy.

  3. pegleggreg says

    time is a human construct. Past present and future are now to God. this whole discussion is bogus

    • Michael Bauman says

      Time is part of the created world. We did not create it–God did for our benefit and the benefit of the rest of creation as well. Like in so many other areas we have taken a bountiful mercy, a gift given by God and turned it into an oppression and a fear. That is truly evil at work.

      Certainly, in the 8th Day, we will no longer be bound by time. That is now and not now, to come and already present.

      As we pray in vespers:

      1Bless the Lord, O my soul!
      O Lord my God, you are very great!
      You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
      2 covering yourself with light as with a garment,
      stretching out the heavens like a tent.
      3He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
      he makes the clouds his chariot;
      he rides on the wings of the wind;
      4he makes his messengers winds,
      his ministers a flaming fire.

      5He set the earth on its foundations,
      so that it should never be moved.
      6You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
      the waters stood above the mountains.
      7At your rebuke they fled;
      at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
      8The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
      to the place that you appointed for them.
      9You set a boundary that they may not pass,
      so that they might not again cover the earth.

      10You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
      they flow between the hills;
      11they give drink to every beast of the field;
      the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
      12Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
      they sing among the branches.
      13From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
      the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

      14You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
      and plants for man to cultivate,
      that he may bring forth food from the earth
      15 and wine to gladden the heart of man,
      oil to make his face shine
      and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

      16The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
      the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
      17In them the birds build their nests;
      the stork has her home in the fir trees.
      18The high mountains are for the wild goats;
      the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.

      19He made the moon to mark the seasons;a
      the sun knows its time for setting.
      20You make darkness, and it is night,
      when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
      21The young lions roar for their prey,
      seeking their food from God.
      22When the sun rises, they steal away
      and lie down in their dens.
      23Man goes out to his work
      and to his labor until the evening.

      24O Lord, how manifold are your works!
      In wisdom have you made them all;
      the earth is full of your creatures.
      25Here is the sea, great and wide,
      which teems with creatures innumerable,
      living things both small and great.
      26There go the ships,
      and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.b

      27These all look to you,
      to give them their food in due season.
      28When you give it to them, they gather it up;
      when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
      29When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
      when you take away their breath, they die
      and return to their dust.
      30When you send forth your Spirit,c they are created,
      and you renew the face of the ground.

      31May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
      may the Lord rejoice in his works,
      32who looks on the earth and it trembles,
      who touches the mountains and they smoke!
      33I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
      I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
      34May my meditation be pleasing to him,
      for I rejoice in the Lord.
      35Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
      and let the wicked be no more!
      Bless the Lord, O my soul!
      Praise the Lord!

  4. Engaged Observer says

    Christ is Risen!

    The old schtick of protestant ministers using their bully pulpit to promulgate ideas about which they know nothing gets tiresome. In a sense, it may be fortunate that protestant ministers don’t have nearly the societal influence that they used to.

    Fr Thomas Hopko of blessed memory offers a fantastic podcast on the true Christian (i.e., Orthodox) perspective of Holy Saturday. This podcast is from 2008 but it is as relevant as ever:
    Holy Saturday

    Hope all had a blessed Pascha and have a wonderful Bright Week! Christ is Risen!

    • Engaged:

      In a sense, it may be fortunate that protestant ministers don’t have nearly the societal influence that they used to.

      How many Americans can name a SINGLE Orthodox priest or bishop?

      • Engaged Observer says


        No idea what your point is. I certainly did not write that Orthodox have societal influence in America. I, for one, am under no delusions as to how most of western society ignores Orthodoxy. I merely said that protestant ministers do not have the societal influence they used to, which I believe to be true.

        Not sure why this ruffles your feathers so.

      • Ivan Vasiliev says

        I can.

      • More Americans than are Orthodox Christians, I would wager.

        I am the only Orthodox in my family, but my entire family knows my priest.

      • M. Stankovich says

        If you saw the Oscar nominated film Selma and were the least bit curious, you had to wonder who the courageous Archbishop was, three men away from Martin Luther King might have been. Perhaps this will serve as inspiration.

        • But marches are useless and self-righteous expressions, right? Or is that only when they’re about marriage?

        • Jerome WIlson says

          For those who don’t know, it was Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory

  5. lexcaritas says

    Notice how, but for the few references to Eastern Orthodox, every Western authority purports to look (almost exclusively) to Scripture for authority and discounts the veracity and reliability of any other aspect of Tradition. This result is that even Scripture itself is not reliable, since no one knows for sure how to interpret it. No appeal is made to Liturgy or to many of the Fathers–who’s thinking is (like modern Westerners) thought of as purely speculative. We are led to think that Rufinus made this all up . . .

    There is an implicit admission in this approach that one has been cut off from Christ and the Apostles for 1,900 years and has but the Scripture to rely on to figure out–almost blindly and on one’s own–what they believed and how they lived and hence in Whom we believe and for what we hope and how we are to live. This state of affairs is so lamentable it makes one weep.

    Now, how are we, the Orthodox, to step into the gap and bring light from the Light?


    • My five years’ experience in the Orthodox Church is that very few people know what they believe and are not really interested in finding out. Attending services is sufficient. God will take care of the rest.

      • Michael Bauman says

        Lina, I’d be interested in knowing where you live because in my area while there are certainly people like you describe they are not the majority. All jurisdictions btw.

  6. M. Stankovich says

    We are living in a grim and nervous age. The sense of historical security has been lost long ago. It seems that our traditional civilization may collapse altogether and fall to pieces. The sense of direction is also confused. There is no way out of this predicament and impasse unless a radical change takes place. Unless . . . In the Christian language it reads—unless we repent, unless we ask for a gift of repentance. .. Life is given abundantly to all men, and yet we are still dead. “Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby you have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, О house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye” (Ezekiel 18:30-32).

    The world is utterly divided still. There is too much strife and division even among those who claim to be of Christ. The peace among nations and above all the unity among Christians, this is the common bound duty, this is the most urgent task of the day. And surely the ultimate destiny of man is decided not on the battlefields, nor by the deliberations of the clever men. The destiny of man is decided in human hearts. Will they be locked up even at the knocking of the Heavenly Father? Or will man succeed in unlocking them in response to the call of Divine Love
    Even in our gloomy days therThe Valley of the Shadow of Death are signs of hope. There is not only “darkness at noon,” but also lights in the night. There is a growing search for unity. But true unity is only found in the Truth, in the fulness of Truth.The Valley of the Shadow of Death “Make schisms to cease in the Church. Quench the ragings of the nations. Speedily destroy, by the might of the Holy Spirit, all uprisings of heresies” (The Liturgy of St. Basil). Life is given abundantly.

    We have to watch—not to miss the day of our visitation, as the Israel of old had missed hers. “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not” (Matt. 23:37). Let us choose life, in the knowledge of the Father and His only Son, our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And then the glory of the Cross and Resurrection will be revealed in our own lives. And the glorious prophecy of old will once more come true. “Behold, О my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. . .Then shall you know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord” (Ezekiel, 37:12, 14).

    Fr Georges Florovsky, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” Collected Works, Volume Three, Creation and Redemption.

  7. Martin Paluch says

    What Did Christ Do on Holy Saturday?

    This is a great mystery; “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily,” “having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:9-14) The ultimate question is; how was such a thing possible?

    The Incarnate Christ has 2 wills, divine and human, 2 natures, divine and human and yet is 1 person unconfused and simple, not a compound of 2, nor intermixed or comingled. So, what did Christ do on Great and Holy Saturday? In essence, where were the Father and Holy Spirit while human eyes saw Christ on the Cross-, in the tomb? St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a Cappadocian Father reminds us “The Godhead is undivided in separate Persons”, accepting this, what then is meant by the troparia:

    “O uncircumscribable Christ, Who fillest all things,
 in the flesh Thou wast in the tomb,
 while as God Thou wast in hades with Thy soul, 
and Thou wast in paradise with the thief
 while on the throne with the Father and the Spirit.”

    Thus, in union with the Fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, we say:

    “We make briefly this whole confession, believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity and after the Incarnation our True God, we say that His two natures shone forth in His own subsistence in which He both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings through the whole of His public life, and that not in appearance only, but in very deed, and by reason of the difference of nature which must be recognized in the same person, for although joined together yet each nature wills and does the things proper to it and that indivisibly and unconfusedly. Wherefore, we confess two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly in Him for the salvation of the human race” inasmuch as, after the union, His human will, being deified, did not disappear, but rather was saved.”

    How can we answer your question and why is it that modern day theologians are throwing at us a few of their own beliefs and I must say with soothing eloquence and credentials to match, setting aside the great mysteries of the Orthodox Church in lieu of convincing and attracting a crowd. Will this lead to our modern day councils re-examining basic truths and explaining the mysteries away with the intention to establish a more logical American Orthodox Church?

    The Church gives us simple instructions that even a child can understand, yet a most difficult task it is for the theologians to accept and be obedient to this simple instruction:

    “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand, rendering nothing earthly-minded. For the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, comes to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful!”

    If any one knows what did take place, citing facts from Scriptures and the Fathers of the early Ecumenical Councils, let them now bring this forward, otherwise be still!

    Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit, not for us to become carnally wise, but to teach us how to become humble obedient children and to feel the inexpressible joy of His Kingdom.

    Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

    Martin Paluch

    • Daniel E Fall says

      A very good post. In this day, where we see men murdered for “polytheism”, more of this is needed.