The Harrowing of Hell
April 3, 2010
Last week, a friend of mine, who is writing a screenplay, asked me a question about Christ’s descent into hell. He wondered what scriptural support the doctrine had. I told him that, so far as I am aware, the doctrine is based on a single New Testament passage. In the First Letter of Peter, it is said that Christ “went and preached unto the spirits in prison”:
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3: 18-20)
This preaching to the spirits in prison is understood to have occurred during the interval between Christ’s death and his resurrection, and it is that descent into hell that is particularly commemorated by the Church on Holy Saturday. My friend, somewhat surprised, asked me if that was all the scriptural support the doctrine had. I told him that, in the Bible itself, that was all, although in Christian tradition the doctrine has a long history; the usual Orthodox icon of the Resurrection is actually a depiction of the Harrowing of Hell; Christ stands on hell’s broken gates, and is grasping the hand of an old man—Adam—and, in some versions of the icon, the hand also of a woman, Eve. I also mentioned to him a passage in Dante’s Inferno, in which Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell, points out a place where, such and such number of years before, someone came through and broke down a wall. I looked for that passage today, and eventually found it in Canto XXI:
Then to us he said: ‘To go further along this ridge
Is not a thing you can do, because the sixth arch
Is lying in pieces down at the bottom;
And if you wish none the less to go on,
Keep up upon the ridge above the bank;
Nearby is another projection where there is a way.
Yesterday, five hours later than this hour,
One thousand two hundred and sixty six years
Had passed, exactly, since the path was destroyed.
I am sending some of my troop in that direction,
To make sure no one has come up for air:
Go with them, they will not be treacherous.’
(Inferno, Canto XXI, lines 106-117; C. H. Sisson, tr.)
As usual, when citing things from memory, I got some of my facts wrong. These lines are spoken in the fifth chasm of the eighth circle of hell (Malebolge), not, as it turns out, by Virgil, as I had thought, but by a demon named Malacoda (Evil Tail), who, as it also turns out, is lying to Virgil: there is, in fact, no bridge in the direction to which he is pointing the two poets, but he is leading them into a trap; not long afterwards, in Canto XXIII, Virgil has to extricate Dante and himself from this trap and from an imminent demonic assault by grabbing Dante and holding him safe while sliding down the rocks to the next level of hell. But the temporal indications Malacoda gives are very precise: 1266 years ago yesterday, he says, five hours later than this hour. A note by David Higgins, accompanying Sisson’s translation, interprets this to mean that, when Malacoda is speaking, it is 7:00 in the morning; Dorothy L. Sayers disagrees: in the notes to her translation (the old Penguin translation, now out of print), she points out that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, Christ’s death occurred at the ninth hour, i.e., 3 p.m., which would put Dante’s and Virgil’s visit to this particular bowge at 10:00 a.m. on Holy Saturday. It should be noted that the Divine Comedy begins on Good Friday in the year 1300, when Dante is 35 years old (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” that is, midway in our journey of life of three score and ten years). Dante thus dates the crucifixion to the year 34 A.D.
Perhaps it would be foolish of me to inquire what time zone it is in hell, and to what standard the demons set their clocks. Infernal Standard Time, presumably. Infernal Standard Time is defined by it being always too late to do anything that might make one happy.
May the readers of my blog not set their clocks to Infernal Standard Time, and may they have a joyous Easter.