Gospel of Nicodemus + Descent into Hell

 

Gospel of Nicodemus: Satan bound in Hell

 

One of the most popular elaborations of Christ’s rescue of the good souls from the Underworld, later known as the Harrowing, that is, “Plundering,” of Hell, was the Descensus ad Inferos added in the sixth century to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (NTA 1).  After putting Christ to death, Satan hastens “below” to give instructions to Hades to make sure that he makes Him secure:

Satan, the heir of Darkness, came and said to Hades, “O insatiable devourer of all, listen to my words.  There is one of the race of the Jews, Jesus by name, who calls Himself the Son of God.  But he is only a man, and at our instigation the Jews crucified him.  And now that he is dead, be prepared, so that we may secure him here.  I know that he is only a man because I heard him saying, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.'” (Gos. Nico. 20.1)

Hades responds (I’m paraphrasing), “Whoa, hold on!  He said this only to mock you.  A little while ago I devoured a man called Lazarus, and

 

235

someone ripped him out of my guts with a mere word.  It must be this Jesus!  Don’t let him in!—I’m sure he’s coming here to take away all the dead!”

But it’s too late.  Sure enough, a great thunderous Voice shouts out the words of Psalm 23.7 (Septuagint version):  “Lift up your Gates, you Rulers!  And you, Eon-Gates, get lifted!  The King of Glory is on His way in!”  Hades, in a panic, tells Satan to go out and stop Him if he can, and out he goes.  Then Hades tells his own Demons to hurry and bar the gates.  The human captives mock Hades, especially David, who says that those words of the Psalm were his prophecy of this very moment.

The Voice comes again, “Lift up the Gates!”  Hades, pretending not to know who it is, says, “Who is it?”  The Angels with Jesus answer (following the words of the Psalm), “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in Battle!”

The Gates are shattered, and Jesus comes in, in a blaze of glory that lights up the whole place.  Now Hades asks in earnest, “Who are you!  Are you Jesus?  Our Chief Ruler Satan told us about you, that by your cross and death you would inherit the whole world.”

Wait a minute—did we miss something?  Satan said no such thing to Hades.  And, by the way, where is Satan?  He was supposed to try to hold Jesus off.

Ah, here he is!—Jesus grabs him by the head and hands him over to the Angels, telling them:  “Fetter his hands and feet and neck and mouth!”  Then Jesus says to Hades, “Take him and hold him fast until my second coming!”

Hades takes charge of Satan and delivers a bitter tirade against him, calling him Beelzebub, and blaming him for this fiasco.  Hades resents losing all of his “holdings,” but at the same time he says that Satan has lost them, too.  Hades promises that he will give Satan a hard time, by visiting “evils” upon him.

Jesus leads out all of the people there, beginning with Adam, and leads them to “Paradise,” leaving Hades’s domain empty.  It soon becomes clear, however, that it’s only the righteous souls that

 

236

Jesus has rescued, but there is no mention of Cain and other wicked souls and their fate.

We notice that Jesus has no grudge against Hades—probably because he’s not real!  The upshot of the story, for our purposes, is that Satan is not in charge of Hell, and once he is consigned to Hell for the “duration,” he is in a state that would make it impossible for him to carry on the Satanic shenanigans.

Still, even though Satan is not in charge of Hell, Hades thinks of him as his Ruler, and of his captives as somehow belonging to Satan as well.  Maybe Satan is the Overlord of the Underlord.

* * *

As we will see, there are various gradations of the belief that Satan was bound in Hell, some of them contradictory.  That is, it seems that some persons believe that he is simultaneously bound and still able to roam about like a lion, as St. Peter says, looking for victims (1 Peter 5.8: see chap. 5.5 above).  One source for the binding of Satan is, of course, Revelation 20.2-3, which says that he is to be bound for a thousand years (see chap. 6.2).

But another popular source is the Beelzebub episode in the Gospels, beginning with Mark.  We recall (see chap. 4.1) that when Jesus was accused of casting out Demons with the aid of the Chief Demon Beelzebub, He responded with five mini-parables, beginning with the absurdity of a satan casting out a satan, and ending with the example of the “strong man’s house”:  in order to burglarize it, you first need to tie up the owner (Mark 3.23-27).

Later on, Beelzebub was identified with Satan, and all five examples were read as dealing with Satan and his Kingdom, and the Oikia tou Ischurou, “Dwelling of the Strong One,” was identified as the World, and the Ischuros himself as Satan (chap. 9.2).  Then, eventually, Satan’s Oikia was seen to be Hell.  In both cases, “the Plunderer of the Goods of the Strong One” is none other than Jesus, and, when the Dwelling is interpreted as Hell, the Goods are the souls of the Dead being held captive by Satan, as in the Descensus ad Inferos.  Except,

 

237

as we have noted, Satan doesn’t really live in Hell until he’s tied up and left there.