WHAT happened to Christ on Holy Saturday as he lay dead between The Crucifixion & The Resurrection is known as The Harrowing of Hell. Christ descends into Hell, where all dead pre-christian humans since the beginning of time have been stored, to divide them into the damned and the saved and lead the Righteous in procession forth to Heaven.
The Harrowing is one of the more esoteric & suggestive episodes in The Easter Liturgy, and has given rise over the centuries to a lot of great Christian Art and rich exegetical ponderings. However, it does not have a very strong or secure basis in The Gospel & is the subject of much doctrinal controversy. In fact, most of the lore of The Harrowing is an invention of theologians and artists who lived long after Jesus, from early christians such as St Melito of Sardis (died c. 180AD) right down to the medieval period.
During the Medieval, The Harrowing became incorporated into the popular mystery play cycles & so would have been common knowledge among the laity. What is clear in The Gospel of Matthew, written down about 80AD, is that the death of Christ on the cross caused a rupture in the ordinary relations of heaven, earth, & underworld:
“27:50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”
That’s right, zombies in the bible. Hell then had opened and, according to later doctrine, the traffic was not only one way.
Legends narrating a heros descent into the underworld precede christianity and play an important role in the mythology of the ancient world and in much of later art and literature influenced by its pagan genius. Such episodes, for example, occur in The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, & in the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. We can imagine that most people, & all those who were scribes, storytellers, or holders of religious office were aware of such tales, which answered two urgent questions posed by the mystery of death as it confronts us individually.
The first question is Where has my loved one gone? The answer is The Underworld, which was not divided by Greeks or Romans into Heaven & Hell but was the one place where all the dead, whether they were just or unjust, whether they were good or evil or middling fair like the most of us, are held captive.
This has some troubling implications. It means that the murderer and the murdered suffer the same destiny, that from the point of view of eternity there is no difference, moral or otherwise, between the murderer and the murdered. It raises the prospect that the persecuted will continue to be hounded by their persecutors beyond death and into infinity. There is not much comfort, and much to dread, in this conception. Imagination the babies of Tuam having to share a room in eternity with the nuns who drowned them in sewage. Imagine the teenager who has been bullied to suicide being thrown forever in among all the bullies that have ever existed. You do not want to meet the people who committed the gravest evils against you and your loved ones in the land of the living over and over and over forever in the land of the dead, do you?
The second question, the urgency of which is multiplied greatly by this troublingly undifferentiated destiny of the dead, is Can I rescue my loved one from the Underworld? Mythology answers with an extremely qualified affirmative – yes you can, but it only occurs on extremely rare occasions and only to noble families benefiting from divine assistance. Rescue/retrieval then is a matter of who you know, a rare & entirely nepotistic affair – a bit like covid vaccination in Ireland. Those who cross the boundaries of life and death in pre-christian mythology do so as elite citizens on personal quests which have no element of a general salvation.
Christ’s Harrowing is completely different. He enters the underworld, where the pre-christian dead have been stored in anticipation since the beginning of time, wielding the sword of Justice and in order to divide The Just from The Unjust. By such actions Christ ensures that the Just of past days – the just amongst the gentiles & the pagans – may escape hell and gain heaven by virtue of good works done while alive, same as any Christian can.
Those whom Christ rescues from Hell as he leads them upwards in a Procession of The Righteous include, as one might expect, the Patriarchs and Prophets of The Old Testament (i.e the leaders of the Jewish faith) – everyone from Adam & Eve through Abraham, Noah, Solomon, David & so on. But according to other accounts & depictions the procession also includes the righteous and the just from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, but whose works were nevertheless holy in the eyes of God. This means Plato, Socrates, perhaps even Diogenes, Sappho, & Homer….to name just a few pagan Greeks…. also get to enter the Christian heaven and enjoy the fruits of the Christian redemption, even though they may very well continue to argue that the Heaven they have entered does not exist.
Not only the borders between death and life have been dissolved by The Crucificion, but also the border between Christian and non-christian. Heaven after the Harrowing is a meritocracy entire. Random selection based on the chance event of being born into a Christian family after the coming of Christ and living according to Christian Dogmas alone – the narrow path to heaven proclaimed by Christian Churches – is simply nonsense in the eyes of Christ.
Now the implications of this are clear, and explain perhaps why the Tale of The Harrowing is not mentioned very much by contemporary Christan Clergy or even by theologians and the wider engaged laity. You don’t have be baptised to enter heaven. You don’t have to profess Christian beliefs or even be a member of a Christian Church to enter heaven. But much further than this too – Christian Churches and all the other human institutions of Christianity are irrelevant to the salvation of the individual, which is solely a matter for God to decide upon. You will be judged solely by your works, by what you do, and especially by that portion of what you do which you do for the benefit of others, for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
It does not matter one jot whether you took the sacraments twice over or said the rosary ten million times per annum – such people-pleasing things win you no advantage in the measurings of God’s Judgement. You are damned all the same, despite your apparent piety, if your mindless and indeed soulless adherence to Dogmas prevented you from doing good for others, or worse again, excused you doing evil to others. Translated into contemporary Irish terms, this means that Panti Bliss is going to Heaven, and David Quinn is heading for the lake of fire.