Film references to Jesus’ ‘descent into hell’

  • Question 113, from MC

    In the movie “Jesus of Nazareth” which aired in 1977, there are two scenes where it seems to quote the Bible but I cannot find it anywhere. Do you know where this comes from?

    “I went down unto the countries, to the countries buried beneath the earth, walked among the people of the past and I was lost, yet I heard your voice and you lifted me from the pit” (paraphrased)

    The film ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ attempts to tell the story of Jesus’ life by harmonising the four gospels, which naturally results in certain events being missed out and other material being added in.

    Certainly, it would seem that this is a deliberate reference to the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. This is the idea that between his death and resurrection Christ’s spirit entered Hades/hell and liberated the captive souls of the righteous. Although popular enough to be included in several creeds, there is a limited Scriptural basis for this belief.

    However, possible references include the assertion that God did not “abandon [Christ] to the grave” (Acts chapter 2, verse 27), and themes in 1 Peter chapter 3, verses 19-20 and chapter 4, verse 6, which has been interpreted as meaning the proclamation of the gospel to souls in hell.

    The descent into hell was a central story in many non-canonical Christian works, for example the Gospel of Nicodemus. It was a very popular story in both the early and medieval church. It has, of course, obvious parallels with Greek heroic myths, where a ‘son of the gods’ enters Hades to free a loved one. This particular form of words may come from such a non-canonical source, or it may have been written for the film.

    The descent into hell, while repeated in the Apostles Creed in many protestant liturgies every Sunday, has fallen out of favour in Protestantism generally. It is still held in Catholic circles, and given the director, Franco Zeffirelli’s Catholic faith, and the papal encouragement he received to film ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, it’s unsurprising that such a Catholic doctrine is referenced in this way.

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