An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

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Harrowing of Hell

The medieval English term for Christ's descent to hell and victory over Satan. Christ's descent to hell or the place of the dead after his death on the cross is mentioned or suggested by several NT sources, including Mt 12:40; Acts 2:24, 31; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9; Col 1:18; and possibly 1 Pt 3:18-19, 4:6. The traditional language version of the Apostles' Creed affirms that Jesus "descended into hell," and the contemporary version states that Jesus "descended to the dead" (BCP, pp. 53, 96). The story was a favorite theme for English mystery plays and art in the middle ages. Christ was portrayed as conquering Satan, and then victoriously leading out Adam and Eve, the prophets, and the patriarchs. The gates of hell cannot withstand Christ's power. Christ's victory was expressed in terms of words from Ps 24, "Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in." This language dramatizes the power of Christ's resurrection and shows Christ's ultimate victory over death. It also portrays the fulfillment of the theme of Christ as second Adam who reverses the tragedy of Adam's fall.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from "An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians," Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.