Holy Saturday is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when Jesus lay dead in the tomb. In short, it is a day without Jesus. You will notice that we strip the altar table bare on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday we will gather around the cross to mark the time of his death without celebrating the Eucharist. On Saturday there is nothing but death and grief.
What is happening on this day? The Apostles’ Creed tells us Jesus “descended to the dead.” You may have also learned a version that said “he descended into Hell.” This difference in wording comes from an ongoing discussion about how best to translate the Greek word Hades. Any good Christian kid knows that you can replace the word Hell with Hades to avoid getting in trouble. But was it an essential belief of the apostles that Jesus descended into Hell or to the dead?
I think the first thing that the Apostles intended to communicate is that Jesus really and truly died. There were people who suggested that Jesus had simply fainted at the crucifixion and was later revived. But Jesus did in fact die and his physical death on the cross secured our salvation.
Secondly, Jesus went to the place where dead people go. His body went into a grave and his spirit had experienced Hades or the Hebrew word Sheol, which we can think of as a general place of the dead and not one that follows divine judgment or includes punishment or reward. I think that this is simply the best understanding of the words we find in scripture and in use by the early church.
I also understand that this is an unsatisfactory answer for many people! For generations, we have been concerned with mapping out the geography of the life after death in far greater detail than the authors of the Bible. Earlier this year I abandoned a well-intentioned read-through of Dante’s Divine Comedy. His elaborate mapping of the circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven populated with contemporary politicians, classical thinkers, and Biblical figures is exhaustive… and exhausting. But he is not unique—everyone from Saint Aquinas to the kid from Heaven is for Real has offered a speculative take on what REALLY awaits us after death.
Jesus has been to Hades and back yet offers his followers far fewer specific details. We can sketch an outline from a handful of verses in Scripture.
- Jesus death on the cross was sufficient for the forgiveness of sin and the defeat of his enemies. There was no need for him to suffer more in Hell. (Colossians 2:13–15)
- Jesus was not abandoned by God and his body did not decay. (Acts 2:25-32)
- Jesus descended to the dead and was with those who died in faith, like the thief on the cross. (Luke 23:40-43)
- Jesus descended to the dead and he proclaimed his victory to disobedient Spirits imprisoned there since the time of Noah. (1 Peter 3:18-20) I’ve read a lot of discussion about this enigmatic reference and I’m quite certain no one knows exactly what it means.
- Jesus descended and then ascended to the heavens and took those who were captive with him. (Ephesians 4:8-10) This too remains a bit of a mystery.
We don’t know when or how some of these things were accomplished. Some of these scriptures references are difficult to understand on their own or to hold together with others to form a complete picture. There are some amazing traditional conceptualizations of what Jesus might of done in Hades—I dare you to look at an icon of Christ and the Harrowing of Hell and not find it awesome! But this is not an essential Christian belief like “He descended to the dead.”
There is room for mystery, unity, and even surprise in the more open ended language. Too often we have colored in the sketch of life-after-death-but-before-Resurrection provided in Scripture with the broad brush strokes of speculation and rhetorical flourish. Much of the Evangelical gospel message has been presented as a choice between heaven and hell. But Jesus invites us to be with him in life and death, whatever that may mean while we await the resurrection of the dead and reunification of heaven and earth in the New Creation.
Holy Saturday is a day to consider life without Jesus: without a savior, without a healer, without a righteous judge, without a redeemer who rescues us from death. A professor of mine once encouraged us to practice looking at death full in the face on Holy Saturday by choosing something dark and unsettling to read or watch about the effects of death and evil in the world. It may be something about war, injustice, or sickness and honestly, I can only bear it once a year and with the knowledge that Easter is the next day.
On Resurrection Sunday we celebrate Jesus Christ who declares, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18) He truly died and descend to the dead and we have the assurance that because he has been to Hades and back again that we we never have to fear being without Jesus.