It’s Holy Saturday, which means there are no readings in today’s lectionary. Christ has been crucified, and is now absent. We await his resurrection. But he’s certainly not idle during this time. Remember what the Apostles Creed says: “[Jesus] suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell.” It is now, between the crucifixion and the resurrection, that Christ made his descent to the limbo of the Fathers and freed the righteous souls who were waiting there. Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Joshua, Isaac, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and all the righteous who died before Christ, the Way to salvation, was made perfect.
More commonly, this event is known as the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ broke open the doors to Hell and made salvation possible. But we don’t have much information about it in Scripture. Many have thought about what this must have been like for the souls in waiting. Perhaps the most famous musing on this comes from Dante, where he has Virgil, Dante’s guide and one of the righteous pagans who was nonetheless left in hell after the Harrowing, point to a hole in the wall and describe a man who broke through and took many souls with him through the exit. This account is very well-known, but I must admit it has a very Kool-Aid Man vibe to it.
Dante is of course taking some artistic liberties with what has been passed on through the deposit of the faith. The Church Fathers agreed on the purpose of the Harrowing: Christ was there to liberate the souls of those who died in a state of grace prior to his death and resurrection. That was the dominant (though not sole) view on the Harrowing for most of Christian history. Other views, like that of John Calvin in the 17th Century, disagree with that. The thought that Jesus needed to go down to liberate some souls in waiting was childish and silly to Calvin. He held that instead the soul of Christ descended in order to experience the torments of hell (that is, not Abraham’s Bosom, but the actual hell of the damned).
“If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.” -John Calvin (Institutes, II, XVI, X)
This reading, of course, is grounded primarily in Calvin’s soteriology. He believes the atonement is first and foremost a satisfying of God’s wrath—of the Father unleashing the fullness of His wrath on the Son, and thus there is effectively no wrath left for us (Christ takes it all). If that’s what you think atonement is, then it makes sense to think this suffering must be all-encompassing (or else what does “it is finished" really mean?). I, of course, disagree with that view (of both the Harrowing and atonement). But now isn't really the time to hash out soteriological disagreements.
Christ has been crucified, and we await his resurrection. That we are saved by Jesus' action on the cross is clear from our previous readings. But the hope we have as Christians is not in the crucifixion, but in the resurrection. That’s why, in the Nicene Creed, we say “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” We await Christ’s resurrection, for it is in that event that we are given hope of our own future life, of our own resurrection and perfection, so that we may too ascend and join Jesus in the presence of the Father.