Holy Saturday is a solemn day for the church—the day that is wedged between our recognition of the death of Christ on Good Friday and our celebration of the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. What then ought we do on Holy Saturday (aside from attend local Easter Egg Hunts)? More importantly to our forefathers (and mothers) in the faith, what did Jesus do on this day? What is unique about Holy Saturday?
Most traditional gatherings of the Christian church (i.e., Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) look to the fourth affirmation of the Apostle’s Creed, which states that Christ descended into hell. Christ’s purpose for this descent was to preach to those who had died and to bring salvation to the righteous. 1 Peter 3:18–20 is the closest Scriptural affirmation of Christ preaching to spirits held in captivity. Other gatherings of the Christian church (i.e., Orthodox, most Evangelicals), while affirming the Apostles Creed, find it difficult to affirm the veracity of this literal descent into hell celebrated on this very day—Holy Saturday.
When we are faced with questions of theology and doctrine we must always appeal firstly to the Scriptures that have been handed down to us. This being said, we should never ignore the wealth of history, tradition, and experience passed on to us by those faithful upon whose shoulders we stand today. Granted that Christ’s literal descent into hell has far more traditional and historical grounding than Scriptural, lets consider the impact of both options and of 1 Peter 3:18–20 on our experience of Christianity on this Holy Saturday.
If Christ indeed descended into the depths of hell to preach to imprisoned Spirits and to bring salvation to the righteous, we can be sure of Christ’s confidence and fearlessness in the face of evil. I am sure that we have all had moments when we had to speak about our faith in a hostile crowd—not always an easy experience. Imagine speaking to the disembodied souls of those who had died in their sinfulness from the beginning of time. Hostile may not describe the audience. Nevertheless, this tradition of Christ’s descent into hell does not suggest he was tentative in his approach or that he was fearful of the evil present. On the contrary, Christ was content to go to hell and back to preach a message of good news and to bring the righteous with him. Likewise, Christ will go to the depths of whatever earthly hell we find ourselves in today and will preach his good news of freedom and salvation. As ambassadors of Christ, we can operate in that same confidence and fearlessness as we bring Christ to the very areas of hell on this earth.
If Christ’s descent into the depths of hell rubs against our Christian minds because of its uncertain Scriptural precedent, we can still celebrate Holy Saturday and the truth found in 1 Peter 3:18–20. My former NT professor in seminary, Dr. Craig Evans, stated in his commentary on 1 Peter that a more appealing interpretation of this passage might be found in the story of the Watchers (i.e., the angels who fathered the Nephilim in Genesis 6). The full story of the Watchers is found in the Jewish historical book of Enoch, but is referred to explicitly in Scripture in Genesis 6, 2 Peter 2:4–8, and Jude 5–7. In this story we read about sons of God (i.e., angels) who procreated with daughters of men and introduced all kinds of evil into the world. These angels are, however, bound in prison for their behavior, waiting their final judgment on the “great Day” (Jude 6). Holy Saturday then can be a celebration of the “subjection of rebellious orders of angels to Christ”1 and the defeat of death and darkness that is, in the sense of commemoration, taking place as we read these words on this very day. No more do we need to fear earthly hells, but neither do we need to fear the powers of this dark world referred to in Ephesians 6:12. We can affirm on this very Holy Saturday the words found in 2 Peter 2:4–9, that God spared not the angels nor men (and women) when they sinned, and he was faithful to rescue Godly men (and women) from trials while at the same time holding the unrighteous to account! No matter the evil we are surrounded with in our present lives—skewed morality, attacks on our traditional Judeo-Christian ethics, spiritual warfare, and others—we need not flee in fear. Rather, we need to remain steady and love until the day that Christ rescues us, which will come not a moment too soon or a moment too late.
Tonight at sunset the church universal will come alive once again. Our traditional brothers and sisters will begin by holding Easter vigils, others with sunrise services and breakfasts, Easter Sunday gatherings, baptisms, and confirmations of faith. We can all hold to the certain assurance that the darkness of night always gives way to the illumination of the Son.