A Christian Perspective

A site to muse on Christian Spirituality, Church History, and other things of interest to me.

The "Storming of Sheol"

Posted by James Bennett (jimb) on 7/24/06
So much for posting every couple of days. It's been busy around here and life always get turned topsy-turvey, especially when you are human and say or do things that you shouldn't. At least we have Christ and His forgiveness when we are truly repentant. I find it sad thinking of those who do not know Him and have to bury guilt for their whole lives instead of learning from their mistakes and moving on, especially when it is so easy to hurt someone close to us when there was never any intention to do so.

Enough of this, on to Aphrahat...

The Storming of Sheol or the Harrowing of Hell or the Descensus ad Inferos

These are the names of a particularly Christian description of Christ's three days in the grave. It developed over time and became very popular in Western Christianity in the middle-ages. Perhaps in the next post or two I'll bring in some of the texts that describe what Christians believed happened at this time, and later go over the development of Christian thought in the early Church, especially the thought of Aphrahat. But for know, I want to include the relevant passages of scripture that were the basis for the development of this doctrine. Perhaps then we can discuss what we believe they mean from our current cultural and theological contexts. All quotations are from the NRSV version:

Matthew 12:40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.


Matthew 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.


Matthew 27:51-53 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.


Acts 2:24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.


Romans 10:6-7 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).


Ephesians 4:8-10 Therefore it is said "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)


Hebrews 13:20 Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant


1 Peter 3:18-20 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.


1 Peter 4:6 For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.


Revelation 1:17-18 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.


While there are other passages, these are the relevant passages for the development of thought on Christ’s descent to Sheol. So, if you were reading these passages carefully, and seeing them as somewhat related, what would you think? What would you write about the three days that Christ spent in the grave? What about Death? What about those in the Grave?

After some discussion here, I will hopefully put out some tidbits concerning words such as Soul, Spirit, Death, Sheol, Hades, etc… They often become important for these early writers and their edges are often blurry for us because of our doctrinal beliefs. But for now, I would like to know how you would understand these questions from your background. How you would interpret them.