What did Jesus do on Holy Saturday?

RNS photo courtesy courtesy Rev. Lawrence Lew.

(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?

“La discesa di Cristo al Limbo “(Descent of Christ into Limbo) by Agnolo Bronzino, from 1552, in Florence.

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.”

An altar reredos at All Souls College Chapel in Oxford, England, depicts Jesus freeing the Jewish Patriarchs in hell.

An altar reredos at All Souls College Chapel in Oxford, England, depicts Jesus freeing the Jewish Patriarchs in hell.

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.

A stained glass window at St. Leonhard Church in Lavanttal, Austria (circa 1340) depicts Jesus (left) freeing lost souls from hell (right)

A stained glass window at St. Leonhard Church in Lavanttal, Austria (circa 1340) depicts Jesus (left) freeing lost souls from hell (right)

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.”



About the author

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke worked for Religion News Service from 2006-2013. He now co-edits CNN's Belief Blog.


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  • With due respect to Pastor Piper. The Greek is written without punctuation: “I say to you today you shall be with me in Paradise”

    What was Jesus doing on Saturday? He was suffering for our sins.

    These are the words of the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost;

    Acts 2:24 “whom God raised up, having loosed the sorrows of hell, for it was not possible for him to be holden of it.”

    The apostle Peter then quotes Psalm 16, making it very clear that these verses do not apply to David, “Thou will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will thou thy holy one to see corruption”

    Bishop and martyr Polycarp in his letter to the Phillipians:

    Polycarp 1:2
    and that the steadfast root of your faith which was famed from
    primitive times abideth until now and beareth fruit unto our Lord
    Jesus Christ, who endured to face even death for our sins, whom God
    raised, having loosed the pangs of Hades;

    We should ask Hans Balthasar what he thinks. He thinks as the apostle Peter and as Bishop Polycarp that he was suffering in Sheol, or Hades.

    As Hans Balthasar so aptly expained, who can understand ‘the dark night of the soul’
    of so many of the blessed saints? Who can understand the suffering of prophets of Israel? And I might add, who can understand the holocaust of the Jews? UNLESS WE UNDERSTAND THE SUFFERING OF JESUS CHRIST IN SHEOL FOR OUR SINS?

  • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Michael. Why do you think the idea of Jesus suffering in hell for human sinfulness is so hard for some Christians to accept? In my reporting I found more than a little discomfort with the idea.

  • Jesus did on the Sabbath after His crucifixion precisely what He did every Sabbath of His life, He rested.
    There is no Biblical evidence that there is life anywhere after death, except at the Second coming of Jesus.
    The pagan tradition of dualism which suggests that there is some animated part of us that lives on after death is contrary to Scripture. Unfortunately, so many who claim to believe the Bible have blindly adopted this false concept in place of Bible truth.
    The scripture teaches that God formed man from the dust of the earth,and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7). Notice that God did not put a soul in man; but rather man became a living soul, the result of dust plus the breath of life.

    Death is simply the opposite of life, the separation of the dust from the breath. Neither of these have any living force apart from each other. God told Adam after he sinned, ” In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:19)The wise man Solomon concurs, “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (Ecclesiastes 3:20) He adds, ” For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun ( Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). The Psalmist David also agrees Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.(Psalm :146:3-4)
    To suggest that something lives on outside of our bodies after death is patently contrary to Holy Writ. Paul declares in the book of Hebrews, chapter 11 that all the Patriarchs and prophets looked forward to the resurrection of Jesus Christ when eternal life will be bestowed upon all who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior from sin. Job says its best, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me”.(Job 19:25-27) Paul also clearly teaches this truth in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57.
    Only God has eternal life and natural immortality (I Timothy 6:16). He gives it as a gift to us through Jesus Christ. (John 3:16)(Romans 6:23) Death is an enemy that separates us from God and everything else. It does not put us in the presence of God or any place else.
    Jesus did not promise the thief on the cross that he would be with him on that day in paradise. Rather, Jesus told the thief on that day that he would be with Him when He returns at his second coming. The passage in Luke 22:43 which seems to suggest that Jesus promised the thief that he would be with Him in paradise on that day is the result of a misplaced comma inserted by the translators who were no doubt influenced by the false doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul. Jesus could not have gone to paradise or any place else except the grave, for He said to Mary soon after His resurrection, “Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17)
    So what did Jesus did on the Sabbath after His death? He simply rested in the tomb. Even in death He kept the Sabbath.
    Christians need to pay more heed to their Bibles rather than to the traditions of Ecclesiastical bodies and philosophies of learned men so called. Here is what Jesus told His disciples when asked what will be the signs of His coming,”And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.(Matthew 24:4-5)
    Through two great errors, the natural immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness, the entire world is being led into destruction. Both of these are dispelled at Calvary.
    For a more in depth study of the state of the dead, go here

  • Thanks for your comments adventtruth. What do you make of the biblical passages that I cite (1 Peter 3:18-20) and cited by Michael (Acts 2:24)? Many Christians say those passages indicate that Jesus sojourned in Sheol. How do you read them?

  • Daniel Burke,

    Many have difficulty with the idea of Jesus Christ suffering in Sheol for our sins because they have difficulty in understanding the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ united.

    Yet, it is quite plain from scripture. That the Son of God came to this earth to do the will of his Father. “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son”

    In what way did God so love us that He gave His only-begotten Son?
    Isaiah 53:10 answers that question:
    “It pleased the LORD to bruise him, he has put him to grief, when thou shall make his soul an offering for sin”

    What happened on the first Passover in Egypt at midnight? The firstborn of Egypt were struck down by the angel of the Lord.

    What happened at midnight on the last Passover in the garden of Gethsemane? Jesus quoted a scripture from Zechariah: “Arise O sword, and strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered abroad”

    Jesus shortly thereafter says, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even as unto death”
    As Jonah was three days and three nights in the fish’s belly, so too will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Even as Jonah said, “Out of the belly of sheol, cried I”

  • I think you’re right, Michael. Understanding how divinity and humanity co-exist in Jesus Christ leads to a number of questions about Holy Week, and probably will continue to do so for long, long time. Thanks for reading and commenting. Your insights are very much appreciated.

  • Let me first address the passage in 1 Peter 3;18-20. The Gopspel writer Luke, in the 4th chapter talks about Jesus going into the Synagogue on the Sabbath day and was given the book of Isaiah from which he read Iasiah 61:1, ” The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because the Lord hath anointed Me to preach the good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captivws, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” David declares, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name:..” (Psalm 142:7) As fallen human beings we are all in the prison of sin with its penalty, death. This is why Jesus came
    to save us from sin. That is what Peter is referring to in 1 Peter 3:18-20. Scripyure does not contradict itself. The consistent teaching of Scripture is that death isa an enemy of God and it seperates us from God. That’s why we need Jesus.
    As for Acts 2:24, it simply states that Jesus was raised from the grave because death had no power over Him. He lived a perfectly sinless life in sinful human flesh. We too, who accept Him as our Savior from sin, will also raise to the newest of life, without sin, in glorified bodies when He comes, very soon. (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
    The sole purpose of the plan of salvation to to seperate us from sin and death. How then can death put us in the presence of God? The Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ simply means grave. It does not refer to some place where men are living in a state of death. Death and life are the opposite of each other. They cannot and does not exist together. Period.

  • Thanks for your comment, adventtruth. A theologian friend of mine brought up another question that you might be willing to answer. It’s a theodicy question. If Jesus did not go to hell, then what became of all the just men and women who lived before him and did not hear his message? Are they forced to stay in hell? My theologian friend said the the descent was one way that early church fathers tried to answer that difficult question.

  • Daniel Burke,

    adventtruth seems to be implying that there is no conscious awareness after physical death. Thus, there is no ‘place’ where departed souls enter after physical death, because a ‘soul’ is the living physical being.

    If this is what adventtruth believes, then he is disregarding the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I also imagine that the story of Samuel speaking from out of Sheol is something adventtruth has an answer. Likewise, he must have an answer for the deceased Moses speaking to Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. Likewise, he must have an answer to the scripture where it says that ‘we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses’. Likewise, he must have an answer to the apostle Paul saying, “He (Jesus) ascended up on high, and led captivity captive, now he that ascended, what is it but that he first descended into the lower parts of the earth”

    Yet, I have no desire to argue with another person’s faith.
    God’s peace.

  • 2 years ago I was meditating over the question why Jesus did not resurrect on the Shabath following the Friday that He was crucified and died. And the answer I got in my soul, me being a catholic Jew, was very enlightening and simple. Jesus respected the SHABATH REST and so He rose up from the “dead’ on the first day of the week which for us is Sunday (YOM RISHON in Hebrew= 1st day). Plus there is another fact : Jewish belief states : after 3 days your body is in such decay and stinky, no way you would revive. That’s why Jesus didn’t hurry to bring Lazarus back to life. But Lord he is dead already 3 days and pffff his body is smelling decaying. So Jesus really showed them that yes He revived Lazarus thru His Godly Will and Power. Hasten Your Coming Lord we need You, Your people needs You. Riki

  • In (John 19:30), before He died, Jesus said, ” ‘It has been finished’. And bowing His head, he yielded up his spirit”. This verse tells us that His death had paid for man’s sins, and this payment allows mankind to “come to the Father”; and his mission to die as a ransom for man’s sin is FINISHED. He does not need to “suffer in Hades” to further atone for man’s sins–that’s simply ridiculous. This verse also clearly tells us that Jesus has a spirit (not just a body). After his body’s death, his spirit went to where the just souls were and allowed them to go to the Father. For He said,”I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:6). Jesus died for all mankind through all time. It is through his death for our sins that we are allowed to go to the Father.

  • If Jesus descended into hell to ‘suffer some more’ and release the dead in Jewish Limbo, then who were the few souls released from their tombs and taken to heaven, witnessed by those in Jerusalem at the time of his death on the cross, and when the earthquake occurred along with the tearing of the veil in the temple?

    Unless, there were ‘layers’ of Limbo, and the most holy prophets were released first, then others during the Friday night, and Saturday after his death. Just as he said that ‘the first will be last’ to enter heaven – and the last, first, such as the criminal on the cross and John the Baptist who died just before him.

    I don’t think he suffered any more after his crucifixion. As he did say, “It is finished”.

  • Oh dear. There seems to be a great deal of complicating a simple process going on here.
    “He desceneded into Hell.”
    It’s pretty straight forward for a simple old Catholic like me.
    Holy Saturday is the GREATEST day of the Church’s Year.
    On this day – when there is no Liturgy (apart from the Liturgy of the Hours) the Church waits in silence and awe as ‘nothing happens’ – and the ‘nothing’ that happens is a dead God lying cold in a grave is destroying the great annihilation – which is the absence of God – ie – Hell – so that you and I will never go there – never experience what he experienced on the Cross – abandonment by God.
    The Church teaches the existence of Hell – and as a son of the Church I hold this as an article of faith – but the Church has never taught that anyone is in Hell but that only one Person ever went to Hell – Jesus Christ – God himself – to destroy it.
    That’s what holy Saturday is about.
    It’s a day of awe and ‘fear of the Lord’ – a Dies Ira – a day of Judgement on sin and abandonment – when Jesus Christ judges every miserable judgement we have ascribed to Him, and has His way – for us and for our salvation.
    Our greatest fear is noth death – but annihilation – complete nothingness and abandonment into non existence – no love – no God – no salvation. Hell.
    All this was done away with – by a dead God lying on a slab in a cold grave next to the town dump outside Jerusalem.
    That’s what I’ve been teaching kids from Grade 5 up to Grade 12 for all my teaching years.
    Not too many adults seem to know it.
    They spend the day – bustling around churches getting them ready for the ‘happy ending’ of Easter (It’s not – Easter is not the ‘happy ending/the Victory – its the celebration of the victory already won on Good Friday and Holy Saturday) – instead of contemplatively preparing for the easter vigil – with a minimum of noise and a great amount of prayerful awe.
    However, I could be wrong. We are all going to have to some degree, egg on our face – when we come into His presence. Thankfully – He has a sense of humour. He created theologians, didn’t he. And even funnier – Liturgists.
    Happy and Holy Holy Week to all.

  • Padt:
    Jesus Christ destroyed hell? I don’t think so; in fact, he warned everybody all of his ministerial days about ending up there!

    In ancient Hebrew, and in the Old Testament, hell, the netherworld, burial in the ground, Hades, and even that tip outside Jerusalem that Jesus named, have all been referred to as Hell.

    Hell still exists! And it is the place where Satan’s demons and the damned will be locked forever on the day of judgement. it was the demons only who recognised who Jesus was and called him the Son of God. They also asked him what he wanted with them because their ‘time was not yet up’. At the second coming of Christ, their time will definitely be up, which is why hell still exists and always will for the damned and demons.

    Be careful of presuming that hell does not exist, and that there is no such thing as punishment for sinners, because you might be libel for falsely teaching that to all of your students when you finally face the Lord.

  • Yes Hell exists because it is a state of being – not a place – it is a possibility. Perhaps I overstate my case. The thing is – as The Pope said recently in an address to people in St Peter’s square – “We may be confident that Hell is empty.” And as a result? Well – that will surely affect they way I live out your life – full of gratitude and a desire to serve God, surely.
    Oh – have no worries – I will have every reason to fear Our Lord when I come before Him for the just punishment I deserve. But I live in hope that the one who will judge me will be the Judge who has been judged in my place and taken the punishment on the Cross. I don’t take that lightly.
    And I hope for you – that you wont go to Hell. Do you hope that for me?
    I have met plenty of people that are more than happy to think of people getting their just desserts and going to Hell. I always tell them, “I’ll see you there.”
    Here’s a prayer for all readers here – for Holy Week.
    O Crucified and Risen Lord,
    I praise and thank you for your Mercy
    For with the spit that we defiled your sacred face, you accepted it and cleansed within us your Divine Image.
    For with the soiled robe of mockery with which we covered your scourged back , you took it and clothed us with glory.
    For with the crown of thorns we placed upon your battered head, you accepted it to take away the pain in our lives.
    And with the reed of derison which we placed in your bound and bloodied hands, you accepted it, dipped it in your blood, and wrote our names in the book of the living.
    For this we adore you and acclaim you as Lord.

  • Opinions are varied on the subject of the reality, or non-reality of Christ’s descent into Sheol, or Hades.

    What really matters is what holy scriptures say.

    What really matters is what the apostle Peter said on the day of Pentecost.

    What really matters is what the early church fathers, such as Bishop Polycarp and other have written.

    What really matters is that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI highly esteem the works of the theologian Hans Balthasar, including his Mysterium Paschale.

    What really matters is that no servant is above their master, and how can we explain the internal suffering of the prophets of Israel, and the dark night of the soul of so many of the blessed saints without understanding the dark night of the soul of our Lord Jesus Christ who has gone before us.

    Finally, we have TRADITION!…we have the apostles creed.

  • Thank you all for your comments and for your respectful treatment of others’ views. I think we might be seeing a modern example here of the kind of debate that led Augustine admit a degree of perplexity.

    padt, i was interested in what you said about Holy Saturday being the greatest day of the Church’s year. In my reporting, I looked for specific rituals or practices that Christians observe on Holy Saturday. Do you have any yourself that you might be willing to share with us?

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes Peter’s epistle, that Christ visited the realm of the spirits of the dead and opened the “gates of hell” so that the righteous of past ages could also be redeemed. What is more, we believe Christ commissioned righteous disciples if his who were among the dead to bring the Gospel to all of the spirits if the dead, so they could have an equal oppirtunity to be saved along with the living who accepted Christ. Every person who dies without the opportunity to hear the gospel, such as many in Muslim lands even today, as well as people who died before the arrival of Christian missionaries, would also have the chance to exercisenfaith in Christ, so that God’s grace could reach all mankind that He created.

  • Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about this subject. A Biblical mentor friend of mine teaches that Christ continued to suffer in hades until the resurrection. When I was a student in Bible school 12 years ago, I agonized over this issue, since very few instructors at my school supported the idea, and one guest speaker in particular, slammed the doctrine of Christ continuing to suffer in hell as heresy. Hank Hannegraff also says that the doctrine is heresy. Interestingly enough, E.W. Kenyon, who became the intellectual forefather of the Word of Faith Movement (although I would argue that his spiritual descendants perverted a lot of his teachings), taught that Christ died spiritually on the cross and continued to suffer until the resurrection. Detractors like Hanegraff call this the “born again in hell” doctrine.

    Here are a few other passages to consider that haven’t been mentioned already in this discussion thread:

    1. Romans 10:7, Paul states that Christ descended into “the abyss” before he was resurrected. “The abyss” is exactly where the demons begged Jesus NOT to send them to.

    2. Romans 4:25 “Who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” This suggests that the moment the claims of justice were satisfied, God raised Christ from the dead.

    3. Ephesians 2:1-10, Colossians 1:18, 2:11-12 Paul emphasizes the spiritual nature of Christ’s resurrection, suggesting that the resurrection was like a rebirth for Christ. If Christ was in a sense “reborn”, or as other passages put it “begotten” in the resurrection, that suggests that Jesus died spiritually.

    I got into a lot of debates in my Bible school days over this subject. I wouldn’t split hairs over it today. Piper and the others very well could be right. I do think, however, that there’s enough evidence in the Scriptures that Christ descended into hell (for whatever reason), that people shouldn’t be sticking the “heresy” label on those who adhere to the doctrine in one form or another.

    I think that Heresy hunters should be careful. The Bible is a very nuanced book. And this subject is no different.