During my youth, on more than one occasion, I recall ministers declaring that Christ entered into hell’s dungeons after his death on the cross, ripped the keys out of the hands of a cowardly devil, and set the captives free. This declaration would conclude with the words of Christ, “fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell” (Rev. 1.17-18).
The point was that one could not get from Good Friday to Easter Sunday without going down into the grave on Holy Saturday. Christ’s conquest of the forces of sin, death, and the devil knew no boundaries—there was no “place” beyond his reach and no power so great that he did not overcome. Christ’s absolute conquest of death hinged upon his complete kenosis into death.
The doctrine of Holy Saturday is not reducible to a “proof” text as though there is a single location in scripture in which it is clearly taught. It emerges from the tenor of the whole, as Irenaeus of Lyons was want to say, rather than from any isolated piece of evidence. Augustine found it in Peter’s sermon that God did not abandon Christ to hell, but loosed him “from the pangs of death” (Acts 2.24, 31). The words of the Psalmist that “you will not abandon my soul to Sheol” become the words of Christ in Acts 2 thereby linking Jesus’ cry of dereliction with a descent into the darkness of death.
For John Chrysostom, the Pauline testimony that Christ “descended to the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4.9) signals his movement into death and its regions. The corresponding ascent and the bestowal of gifts symbolizes the spoils of the conquering Christ who has liberated the captives.
Yet, as Luther noted, one must be careful not to make too much of this imagery. In the Torgau sermon on Christ’s descent, Luther remarks that the paintings depicting this event “show well how powerful and useful this article is, why it took place, why it is to be preached and believed that Christ destroyed hell’s power and took all his power away from the devil. When I have that, then I have the true core and meaning of this article of faith.” Theological precision about the exact conditions under which it occurred, the mode of Christ’s presence, the composition of hell’s gates, etc., distract from the essential point, and to demythologize this part of the church’s teaching is a failure to see the crucial importance of Holy Saturday.
The doctrine of Holy Saturday combines Christ’s abandonment to death with his complete conquest of death so that the former is necessary for the latter. Hell is not simply a place of abandonment, but, as von Balthasar noted, the consummation of absolute isolation, a severing of all links to creation, one’s fellow human beings, and the God behind all. At the end of every cycle of addiction is an isolationism that covers the person in darkness like a shroud. Under these conditions, death appears, deceptively, as a friend, not an enemy—someone to bring an end to suffering. The destruction of life becomes a good to be pursued.
The descent in Dante’s Inferno from hot to cold unmasks the basic deception that desire unleashed to roam without order or direction ends in the freedom of desire. Instead, what results is the nullification of desire as the individual becomes encased in the self. The unconstrained flight of desire leads to the extinction of desire, as any porn addict knows. What was once designed to enable humans to transcend themselves and embrace the other now becomes the seal, the barrier to the beyond.
Jean Paul Sartre recognized this point when he explained that his famous line “hell is other people” in the play Huis Clos meant that if one’s relations to the other are warped, the other invariably becomes hell. The problem is not “other people,” but a warping of that fundamental part of human being that makes relations genuinely possible: emotion and desire.
Into these deep dark places of abandonment and isolation the passion of love flows through the conquering Christ. The emotions and desires that have become the prison house of the soul objectively find their liberty in the work of Holy Saturday. Christ goes to the outer limits and thus Hades must give up its prisoners.
Given Holy Saturday, there can be no reconciliation with death as though the enemy has become a friend. Christians are reconciled to Christ, having entered with him into death’s depths through the waters of baptism. The enemy has been vanquished and thus Christians face death—that final dark night of the soul—within the victory of God. To be pro-life is not to surrender to the forces of death in whatever guise they present themselves because “you will not abandon my soul to Sheol.”