The Harrowing of Hell (the idea that on Holy Saturday Christ went down into Hades to retrieve the souls of the righteous who had predeceased him) is a post-biblical development of Christian thought, but its origins lie in the New Testament. Matthew 12:40 and Ephesians 4:9 assert Jesus’s descent to the depths, and 1 Peter 3:19 talks of his proclaiming the gospel to imprisoned spirits, both righteous and unrighteous, after his death.
The Philippians ‘hymn’ (2:6–11), thought by many to be a pre-Pauline liturgical text pressed into service by the Apostle, has this sense of descent in its first two verses; there is also a reference to the depths of the earth in verse 10. But the overall trajectory is clearly down and then up, from degradation to exaltation, with the turning point at verse 9.
And why has Paul pressed this hymn into the service of his argument on faithful Christian living? He wants his readers to understand that there is no route to exaltation other than to be ‘in Christ’, to participate in his humility and obedience unto death (Philippians 3:6–14). Christ descended to be with human beings and to offer them the opportunity of being taken hold of by him (the literal translation of 3:14) through faith, so that he could as it were pull them up with him into the resurrection life.
This miniature from the introduction to an English Book of Psalms, communicates this movement superbly, capturing the liberating hold of Christ on Adam (with Eve not far behind), their re-birth from the rather charming Gruffalo-like jaws of hell to the attainment of full human dignity, and the transformation of despair to joy on the faces of those about to be released. Christ is seen to have triumphed over the powers of darkness and, unequivocally to have done this via his cross (Philippians 2:8).
This particular take on the traditional iconography of Christ at the mouth of Hades boldly asserts that there is no such thing as a God-forsaken place or human condition. This is an image steeped in hope.
2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.