Holy Saturday — The Day Jesus went to Hell and Kicked A$@

Christ's Descent into Limbo, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1510

Let’s be honest, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is the most boring part about Christianity’s most important holiday.  The whole Jesus narrative just kind of goes on pause at the end of Easter Week.

Yesterday we remembered the Crucifixion — a mad drama with unjust villains, angry crowds, torture, tears and forgiveness.  Oh, and don’t forget the earthquakes, thunder and zombies!

But today we’re all just kind of holding our breath, waiting for that moment when Christ bursts forth from the tomb like an unkillable badass and knocks out a bunch of Roman soldiers.

The Resurrection by Johann Carl Loth (17th century)
Yeaha! That’s what I’m talkin’bout!

I mean, be honest, today is such a boring holiday you didn’t even know it has a name.  Well now you do: it’s Holy Saturday, and it’s boring as hell.  I kid you not, the first Google result I found on it today was an article titled “Holy Saturday is a time to pause and reflect.”  This is why people who make movies about the crucifixion just skip Saturday entirely — ain’t nobody got time for that.

“What holiday is school letting out for again?” “Who cares! You’re such a nerd!”

Well it turns out that Christ never meant to put a dull downer in the middle of the most important story in human history.  In the first draft of the Bible, our freshly dead superhero goes on an adventure to about the least boring and “reflective” place you can imagine: hell.

I'm breakin' out of this gawd-awful place in the morning!  Who's with me?
I’m breakin’ out of this gawd-awful place in the morning! Who’s with me?

Going to hell is a sort of a right of passage for ancient Greco-Roman heroes — all the cool kids did it, and Christ wasn’t about to be out-done by a puny little half-god like Hercules.  But our shining Lord doesn’t just pop into the underworld for a cordial visit — he goes to kick ass.  In the Holy Saturday event known as the Harrowing of Hell — a.k.a. the special ops strike of the eon — Christ the Victor rampages through the inferno, tossing great demon-beasts and minotaurs aside, punches Satan in the face, and then gathers up all the good people who died in some God-forsaken year B.C. and whisks them off to paradise.

Okay, so I may have added a few flourishes (I’m justing sayin’, it’d make a great movie!).  But the story is especially interesting because, for the early church fathers, it helped to answer one of the most debated questions in Christian history: Who is saved, how and when?

See, when Christ broke out of hell, he left a lot of people behind.  And not just evil people — also good people, good people who hadn’t sinned.  People like Socrates.

“Follow the argument where it leads, and then you can totally drink poison with no fear!”

More than anything else, Socrates was interested in doing justice.  Using words that sound remarkably like Jesus, he argued that living a good, virtuous life was all it took to be secure in the afterlife.  I’m not saying the Christ copied the philosopher’s homework, but tell me if this passage from Socrates’ own “last supper” (in Plato’s Gorgias) doesn’t sound a wee bit familiar:

Follow me then, and I will lead you where you will be happy in life after death, as the argument shows.  And never mind if some one despises you as a fool, and insults you, if he has a mind; let him strike you, by Zeus, and do you be of good cheer, and do not mind the insulting blow, for you will never come to any harm in the practice of virtue, if you are a really good and true man.

So good people aren’t supposed to get short-shifted in the apocalypse.  But when Dante visits hell 1300 years later, he finds all the swell, upstanding Good Ol’ Boys living just inside the gate: Aristotle, Euclid, Cicero, Homer, the list goes on.  Good people in hell?  Why?

Dante turns to the Roman poet Virgil in surprise, and says with his thick Italian accent “Uh, aren’t these folk supposed to be someplace else?  With less fire and wailing?  Do any of these people get out of here eventually?”

“Whaat-a the fuuuck-a?  Why are you here?”

Virgil dodges the question, and talks about how back in the day, Jesus crashed through the door and took Abel, Noah, Moses, David and Rachel out and blessed them, and how “before these, human spirits were not saved” (Inferno, Canto IV).

Well that’s great, Virgie, but you’re avoiding the real point: You were there when Christ came “hither crowned with the sign of victory,” and he left. your. ass. behind.  Socrates led you in the practice of virtue and justice, and what did it get you?  Stuck in Limbo for all eternity with a bunch of academics in their ivory tower.

See, Dante’s version of the story drives home the key lesson of the Harrowing of Hell: Socrates’ vision of salvation isn’t enough.  Sometimes you don’t go to hell because you deserve it, per se — you go to hell because you didn’t believe in Jesus and/or get baptized, and He meant that ish when He said “no one comes to the Father except by me.”

Congratulations, son, you are now better than Socrates.
Congratulations, son, you are now better than Socrates.

When Dante imagined hell, he seemed to recognize that there was something not quite fair about dooming history’s greatest teachers of virtue and opponents of hypocrisy to an eternity of suffering.  So, to be fair, the poet offers non-believers a sort of olive branch: all the good pagans get to live in the least God-awful part of hell, in a big city glowing the with the “lesser light” of philosophy.  They aren’t tortured, they aren’t on fire or anything like that.  They are simply doomed for all eternity to exist the same way they did in life: Virgil says he is “only so far harmed that without hope we live in desire.”

And I appreciate that.  I mean, I still don’t think Virgil deserves to be permanently banned from the Biggest Party in the Universe only for not believing in a God he’d never heard of.  But at least Dante does him the dignity of not burning him forever.  I dunno.

What do you think salvation means?  And what does it mean for how Christians and virtuous non-believers can join forces for good?

One thought on “Holy Saturday — The Day Jesus went to Hell and Kicked A$@”

  1. The Greek Orthodox (who will be triumphantly celebrating the Harrowing of Hades this coming weekend) would be shocked to learn that anyone seriously thought Socrates and Plato got left behind. They even sometimes paint them with halos in churches. Square, blue halos, but halos none-the-less. They hold a much more sophisticated view as to who got left behind and why.


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