Bible Review 19:3, June 2003

The Harrowing of Hell

By Heidi J. HornikMikeal C. Parsons

[He] was crucified, died and was buried.

He descended into Hell.

On the third day, he rose again from the dead.

He ascended into Heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Millions of Christians have recited these lines from the Apostles’ Creed as a statement of their faith.1 Dated as early as the second century C.E., the creed is part of the baptismal liturgy of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. The creed’s brief account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is borrowed directly from the Gospels—except for one line: “He descended into Hell”—in Latin, Descendit ad inferna.

Countless Byzantine and late medieval paintings depict this mysterious descent.2 In Italian artist Benvenuto di Giovanni’s version (above), from about 1490, Jesus stands at the entrance to a cave-like Hell. He has broken down the door, killing a red demon in the process. Jesus extends his arm toward an aged man with long white hair and beard: It is Adam, the first (and thus the oldest) man. Several other righteous spirits rush to greet Jesus: They include Eve (beside Adam) and John the Baptist (far right), wearing his animal skins.

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