The Acts of Pilate: Christ’s Descent into Hell

This is my paraphrase of a section from the fourth-century apocryphal book The Acts of Pilate. I used Montague James’ translation from The Apocryphal New Testament, available here.

Joseph stood and said unto Annas and Caiaphas, “You’re right to marvel because you heard that Jesus has been seen alive after his death and ascended into Heaven, but even more marvelous: he didn’t rise alone. Many people who were dead were raised out of their tombs and have been seen by people in Jerusalem.  Now listen to me: we all knew the blessed Simeon, the high priest who held Jesus as a child in the temple.  Simeon had two sons, brothers in blood, and we were all at their burial.  Go and look at their tombs!  They’re open because they’ve risen and they’re in the city of Arimathaea praying.  Men hear them crying out, but they speak with no man.  When they’re confronted, they’re quiet as dead men.  Let’s go to them with honor and gentleness.  Maybe they’ll tell us the mystery of their resurrection.”

The group agreed.  Annas, Caiaphas, Nicodemus, Joseph and Gamaliel went and found the brothers.  Sure enough, they were not in their tombs, but living in Aramathea.  They found them kneeling and praying.  The group kissed the brothers and with all the reverence and fear of God, they brought them to the synagogue in Jerusalem.  They shut the doors and took the law of the Lord and put it in their hands and asked them by the Lord God, “Do you believe that Jesus raised you from the dead?  Tell us how you were resurrected!”

Karinus and Leucius trembled and groaned.  They looked up to Heaven together, made the seal of the cross on their mouths, and said, “Give us each some paper and we’ll write what we saw and heard.”  They were given paper, and each brother sat down and cried out, “Oh Lord Jesus Christ, life and resurrection of the dead, please let us tell the mysteries of your majesty, which you performed after your death on the cross to illuminate your salvation.  For you commanded your servants to tell no one the secrets of your divine majesty which you worked in Hell.”

This is what they wrote:

We were set together with all our fathers in Hell, in obscuring darkness, but there was suddenly a light.  It was warm, like the light of the sun, but it was a royal purple.  Immediately, the father of the whole race of humanity, together with all the patriarchs and prophets, rejoiced, saying “This light is the beginning of the everlasting light which promised to send his co-eternal light to save us!” 

Isaiah cried out and said, “This is the light of the Father and the Son, which I prophesied about when I lived on the Earth: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those that dwell in the land of shadow of death, a light has dawned (Isa 9:2).’  The light has finally come to those that sit in death.”

As we all rejoiced in the light that shined on us, our father Simeon came over rejoicing and said, “Glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; for I received him in my hands in the temple when he was just a child, and, being moved by the Holy Spirit, I said, ‘Now my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all nations: a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel (Lk. 2:29-32).’”  When all the saints heard him, they rejoiced even more!

After that, there came the voice of one who cried out in the wilderness, and people asked, “Who are you?”  The man answered, “I am John, the prophet of the most High, who comes before him to prepare his way; to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins (Lk 1:77). When I saw Jesus coming to me on Earth, the Holy Spirit moved me to say, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’ (John 1:29) and I baptized him in the river Jordan.  Then, a voice from heaven boomed, ‘this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased (Matt 3:17).’  Even here, I’m coming to prepare his way.  He is coming!  The Son of God is coming from on high to shine on us that sit in darkness and the shadow of death (Lk 1:79).”

When Adam, the first created, heard about Jesus baptism in the Jordan, he cried out to his son Seth, “Tell your sons, the patriarchs, and the prophets what you heard from Michael the archangel when I sent you to the gates of paradise to beg God to for the oil of the tree of mercy to anoint my body when I was sick.”

Seth came to the group and said “When I was praying at the gates of paradise, Michael, the angel of the Lord, appeared and said, ‘I was sent to you from the Lord.  I am set over the body of man, and I say unto you, Seth, don’t trouble yourself praying for the oil for your father’s pains.  You won’t be able to receive that until the last days, when the five thousand and five hundred years are over.  Then the beloved Son of God will come to Earth to raise up the body of Adam and the bodies of the dead.  He will be baptized in the Jordan, and then he will anoint everyone who believes in him with the oil of mercy.  That oil will be for all generations of people born by water and the spirit unto eternal life.  Then the most beloved Son of God, Jesus Christ, will come down upon the Earth and bring Adam into paradise to the tree of mercy.’”  When everyone heard what Seth said, the patriarchs and prophets rejoiced even more than before.

While all the saints were rejoicing, Satan, the prince and chief of death, said to Hell, “Make yourself ready to receive Jesus.  He boasted that he was the Son of God, but he is a man who fears death like any other.  He himself said, ‘My soul is sorrowful, even unto death (Matt 26:38).’  He’s been an enemy of mine, doing me incredible damage.  People that I made blind, lame, mute, leprous, and possessed, he healed with a single word.  He even stole people from you that I dragged here after death.”

Hell replied, “How is he so powerful if he’s a man that fears death like any other?  All the great heroes of Earth are held here by my power (even the ones that you dragged here).  I, know that you’re incredibly powerful, so how is it that a mortal that fears death can overpower you?  If he’s stronger than you, he has to be God, and neither of us stands a chance against God.  He’s pretending to be afraid of death so that he can trick you and crush you for all of eternity.”

But Satan, Prince of Tartarus, said, “Why are you doubting me?  Why are you afraid to finally capture Jesus, our mutual enemy?  I tempted him.  I stirred up my old allies within the Jewish tribes to hate and envy him.  I sharpened the spear that was thrust through his side, and I gave him gall and vinegar to drink.  I prepared the cross on which he was crucified, and the nails that held him to it, and his death is so close.  I will bring him to you, and he will be ours at last.”

Hell said, “You told me that he took dead men from me.  Many on Earth have done that before, but never of their own power. They prayed to God, who took them from me.  Who is this Jesus who can take people from me by his own power, without prayer?  Is this the same Jesus whose command brought Lazarus back, even after I had him for four days?  His body was putrid and decaying, but he rose!”

Satan, the prince of death, answered and said, “It’s the same Jesus.”

When Hell heard that, he said, “Please, I beg you, by your strength and mine, don’t bring this man to me.  When I heard his voice command Lazarus, I was terrified.  We couldn’t keep Lazarus, who flew out of here with all the agility and swiftness of an eagle.  Even the earth had to give up that decaying body and restore it to life!  The man who did that is God, strong in command and mighty in his humanity.  He is the savior of mankind.  If you bring him to me, he will free everyone in this prison and unlock the unbreakable chains of sin that hold them here.  He will bring them the life of God forever.”

As Satan the prince and Hell were speaking, there came a voice like thunder: “Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in (Ps 24:9).”

When Hell heard it, he said to Satan the prince, “Leave me and leave your safe abode!  If you’re a man of war, fight against the King of glory!  Though I’m not sure what you can do.”  And Hell threw Satan out of his dwelling.  Then Hell spoke to its evil ministers, “Shut the gates of brass and put on bars of iron!  Withstand his power, or we who hold captives will be taken captive!”

But when the multitude of saints heard that voice, they rebuked Hell: “Open your gates so that the King of glory can come in!”

David cried out, “Didn’t I tell everyone when I was on Earth?  Didn’t I say, ‘Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loving devotion and his wonders to the sons of men.  For he has broken down the gates of bronze and cut through the bars of iron (Ps 107:15-16).’  He has taken us out of the way of our own iniquities!”

In the same spirit, Isaiah said, “When I was alive, didn’t I say, ‘The dead will live, and those in tombs will get up again.  Those that are in the earth will rejoice, for the dew of the Lord is their healing (Isa 26:19).’ Didn’t I also say “Death, where is your sting?  Hell, where is your victory (1 Cor. 15:55)?’”

When the saints heard Isaiah, they all shouted at Hell, “Open your gates!  You will be overcome.  You are weak and have no strength!”

Then the voice like thunder spoke again, “Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”

When Hell heard the voice speak the second time, he pretended like he didn’t know what it was talking about.  “Who is the King of glory?”

David answered Hell and said: “I know that question!  By God’s spirit, I prophesied it!  I’ll answer it the same way I answered it on Earth: ‘The Lord strong and mighty! The Lord, mighty in battle!  He is the king of glory (Ps 24:8)! He looked down from heaven and heard the groaning of those in chains.  He delivers those doomed to death (Ps 102:19-20).’  Open your gates, most foul and stinking Hell!   Open your gates, so the King of glory can enter.”

And as David spoke to Hell, the Lord of majesty appeared in the form of a man and lit up the eternal darkness.  He broke the bonds that could not be loosed.  Everlasting power came to us that sat in the deep darkness of our transgressions and in the shadow of death of our sins.

When Hell and death and their wicked ministers saw this, they were terrified at the sight of such brightness in their own realm.  At the sight of Christ, they cried out, “We are overcome by you!  Who are you who God sent to confuse us?  Who are you that has none of the damage of corruption and condemns our power in majestic wrath? Who are you that is so great and so small, both humble and exalted, both soldier and commander, a marvelous warrior in the shape of a debtor, and a King of glory dead and living, who was slain on the cross?  You that lied dead in the tomb have come down to those of us living here.  At your death all of creation shook and the stars trembled.  You are free among the dead, and you’ve routed our legions.  Who are you that set free the prisoners that are held bound by original sin and restores them into their former liberty?  Who are you that sheds your divine light on them that were blinded with the darkness of their sins?”

The legions of devils were also horrified and cried out in their confusion, “Where are you from, Jesus?  You’re too powerful and glorious for a human, and you don’t have the blemish of sin!  The world that we’ve dominated has never sent us a dead man like you, and such a gift has never entered the gates of Hell.  Who are you that fearlessly enters our borders and doesn’t fear our torments?  Who are you that breaks the chains of our prisoners?  Are you that man who Satan said will take dominion of the whole world by your death on a cross?”

The King of glory trampled upon death and grabbed Satan the prince and threw him deep into Hell.  Then, he took Adam and delivered him to his light.

Hell received Satan and reproached him: “Prince of perdition and chief of destruction, Beelzebub, scorn of angels and spite of the righteous, why would you do this?  Why would you crucify the King of glory and assume that we’d benefit from the spoils of his death?  You fool!  You had no idea what you were doing.  Look, this Jesus is destroying the darkness with the brightness of his light.  He’s broken our prisons and he’s freed our prisoners.  People that suffered our torments are now rejoicing at our losses, and their prayers are vanquishing our dominions and ruining our realm. No nation of men fears us anymore.  Even the dead are defeating us and these pathetic captives dare to threaten us.  O prince Satan, father of all the wicked and ungodly renegades, why did you do this?  People that have lived in despair from the beginning, far from the light of salvation, are roaring, rather than groaning.  Their faces aren’t covered in tears anymore.  O prince Satan, holder of the keys of Hell, everything you gained from the tree of transgression and the loss of paradise, you just lost by the tree of the cross.  Your joy is over.  When you hung up Jesus Christ, the King of glory, you acted against both of us.  From now on, you are my prisoner and will suffer in their stead.  O prince Satan, author of death and head of all pride, you should have corrupted this Jesus.  Why did you crucify him when he was blameless?  Why would you bring an innocent into our prison and cost us every guilty person that we held from the foundation of the world?”

And when Hell was finished speaking, the King of glory said to Hell, “Satan the prince will be in your power from now on, rather than Adam and his children, especially my righteous ones.”

And the Lord stretched out his hand and said, “Come unto me, all my saints who bear my image and likeness.  You that were condemned by the tree, see now that Satan and death have been condemned by a tree.”  All of the saints were gathered up in the presence of the Lord.  And the Lord held the right hand of Adam and said to him “Peace be you and your children, my righteous ones.” 

But Adam threw himself at the knees of the Lord and said him through tears, “I will exalt you, God, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.  You brought my soul up out of Hell.  You delivered me from those that went down into the pit.  Sing praise to the Lord, all you saints, and give thanks to him for his holiness.  For there is wrath in his anger and life in his good pleasure (Ps 30:1-5).”

Likewise, all of the saints of God threw themselves at the feet of the Lord and said with one voice, “You came, O redeemer of the world!  What was foretold by the law and the prophets has now been accomplished in deed.  You have redeemed the living with your cross, and by the death of the cross you have come down to us, so that you could save us from Hell and death through your majesty. Oh Lord, you set your name of glory in the heavens and set up your cross on Earth as a token of your redemption.  Set up the victorious sign of the cross here in Hell so that death will have no power here.”

And the Lord stretched out his hand and made the sign of the cross over Adam and his saints.  He took the right hand of Adam and left Hell, and all the saints followed him.