Why the Harrowing of Hell Still Matters

A Forgotten Model of Salvation

In 1 Peter there is a peculiar remark which continues to generate theological speculation among Christians to this day. After describing Jesus’ divinely sanctioned death, the text goes on to note: ‘being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits  to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built’ (3:19-20). Here the text recalls the gigantic progeny of the sons of God who brought violence and bloodshed to the earth in the days before the flood (Genesis 6:13). Even these creatures, long since dead are said to partake in Jesus’ messianic promise: ‘freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free’ (Luke 4:18). To confirm this conclusion, the author of 1 Peter goes on, ‘For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit’ (4:6). As cynical moderns with an eye for mythological motifs (the pre-flood giants have their analogue in Sumerian mythology) we are likely to dismiss this remark in 1 Peter as a cute cultural gloss by a writer who wants an audience familiar with Genesis to accept his claims. It would be easy to dismiss the image of Jesus talking to giants in some netherworld if this were an isolated image. But the motif of Jesus liberating creatures in some post-mortem state appears in other places in the New Testament as well.

Two key hints about Christ’s activity among the dead are provided by the Acts of the Apostles. In his speech to the citizens of Jerusalem (probably a version of a pre-80 CE creedal formula) Peter interprets a Psalm of David as referring to Jesus’ life after death: ‘you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption’ (2:27). Peter later repeats this formulation, telling his hearers, “His (Jesus’) soul was not left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption’ (2:31). Here Hades (ᾅδης) is a Greek borrow for the Hebrew Shoal (the grey afterlife reserved for both the righteous and the wicked). For the ancient Hebrews, there were no ethereal feasting halls or eternal summer lands. At best, a soul could expect a sub-earthly existence of perpetual gloom and dreamlike torpor. Yet, unlike his fellow mortals Jesus cannot be held by death. Indeed, he breaks the power of death utterly by his return to life on the first Easter. Thus the testimony of Acts makes sense of Jesus’ otherwise enigmatic statement that ‘the gates of Hades’ will not avail against the church (Matthew 16:17-19). A similar image of post-mortem liberation can be discerned in the theology of Paul. The apostle suggests in Ephesians 4 that Jesus ‘descended to the lower, earthly regions’ delivering ‘a host of captives’ from their bondage (4:8). Are these the same captive spirits mentioned in 1 Peter?  Paul even suggests that there is such a thing as baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). This ties in closely with 1 Peter’s mention of proclamation, to ‘the spirits’. Whatever else Jesus might be doing the world of the dead he appears to be carrying out God’s saving activity. In the manner of his earthly ministry, he continues to spread the Good News to those without hope. As the early church theologian Clement of Alexandria summarises these points:

Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and guard’? … And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there (Stromateis 6, 6).

Here Clement helps us appreciate a vital issue. The Church can conquer the power of Hades because Jesus has conquered the netherworld first. As Paul asks in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘”Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (15:55). Paul knows the answer. The power of Shoal has been abolished in Jesus. When we combine these statements with Paul’s images of Jesus shaming the principalities and powers at his crucifixion (Colossians 2:15) we get the impression of Christ operating on two levels. The first is the familiar Jesus of Nazareth as revealed through his public ministry (his preaching and the healing). The second is a more shadowy, altogether less familiar figure. This is the cosmic Jesus who is said to reconfigure the order of the world through his living and dying.He is not bound by space and time, but ‘is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). In this elevated state, he is capable of contending with the deep structures of the world (those things which Paul calls ‘the powers’). This includes the domains of ‘past’ and ‘future’ which restrict and condition all of temporal existence (see Romans 8:38-9). In the classical tradition, these realities came under the jurisdiction of the god Kronos (Time). While his son Zeus (the future father of Olympus) was capable of imprisoning him, he could not kill him. Time could be constrained but not done away with. In this respect, 1 Peter’s insistence on Jesus’ descent is more than a nice mythical gloss. It is an attempt (albeit in particular cultural terms) to describe the extent of Jesus’ saving power. The Son came not only to transform his contemporaries, but sought to free beings that had long since perished aeons past. Jesus has finally defeated Kronos. Now the world can be made radically open to a ‘new creation’. As Paul writes daringly, ‘whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours’ (1 Corinthians 3:2). The name for this ancient image of radical openness is the Harrowing of Hell, for now, darkness is being emptied and shaken (harrowed)  by Christ’s divine power.

Welcoming a New World

Why did the early Church believe that this event had changed everything? Part of the answer has already been offered through a brief mention of ‘the powers’ but let’s work through the implications of this idea to the end. In the old paganism, death was understood as a bridge from which no mortal could hope to return. It was a permanent fissure between two different realities. The gods could sometimes compensate fortunate mortals for their loss, but death itself was thought immovable. This is beautifully dramatized in Homer’s Iliad, when Zeus discovers that even he cannot save his son, Sarpedon. As the goddess Hera reminds her husband:

‘Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since Doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him? Do it, then; but not all the rest of us gods shall approve you. And put away in your thoughts this other thing I tell you; If you bring Sarpedon back to his home, still living, think how then some other one of the gods might also wish to carry his own son out of the strong encounter; Since around the great city of Priam are fighting many Sons of the immortals.  You will waken grim resentment among them. No, but if he is dear to you, and your heart mourns for him, then let him be, and let him go down in the strong’ (The Iliad, Book 16, 439-457).

Here death is a rule which cannot be overcome without disturbing the unity of the gods and the subsequent  equilibrium of the universe. The same kind of metaphysical resignation is also preserved in the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The semi-divine musician attempts to rescue his mortal love from the jaws of death, but he is thwarted at the final moment by his own sense of human attachment. He is fated to lose her even though he tries to resist. From what did Orpheus attempt to rescue Eurydice? According to Homer the land of the dead was a cold and desolate place, devoid of the gifts and pleasures of mortal life. As the shade of Odysseus’ mother puts it in the Odyssey: ‘this is the way it is with mortals after death. The sinews no longer bind flesh and bone, the fierce heat of the blazing pyre consumes them, and the spirit flees from our white bones, a ghost that flutters and goes like a dream” (BkXI:150-224). Yet the Church, grounded in the proclamation of the empty tomb, gave a different answer to the problem of death.  Unlike the gods of Greece and Rome, the God of Israel was not bound to the powers of Hades. As the maker of heaven and earth, Christians and Jews understood him, not as ‘the God of the dead but of the living’ (Mark 12:27). Yet, this meant more than some general support of life over oblivion (a kind of biophillia). It was a comment on God’s relation to time. Through Jesus’ descent to Hades, we are shown that the past can be opened up again, walked in and rewritten. And yet here is the paradox. Despite this transformation, the memory of the past, its wounds and stings, are nonetheless preserved. Unlike Greek myth, Jesus does not come back from the grave, forgetful, as if he had drunk from the waters of Lethe. He still remembers the agony of  what has transpired at Golgotha  but he is no longer bound by the reality of the cross. Finding the words for this sort of erasure is doubtless philosophically taxing, but perhaps one of the best formulations can be found in The Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot: ‘The hint, half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union/Of spheres of evidence is actual/Here the past and future/Are conquered, and reconciled”. This sense that Christ could revisit and heal the wounds of the past, led the Church to a set of startling conclusions. What were they?

The Reign of Love

Jesus Christ would hardly have cited, as an example of all that is gentle and beneficent and compassionate, a Being who shall deliberately scheme to inflict on a large portion of the human race tortures indescribably intense and indefinitely protracted; who shall inflict them, too, without any mistake as to the true nature of pain—without any view to future good—merely because it is just. (Percy Shelley)

Image result for sodomites in hell danteFirstly, the Harrowing of Hell potentially means the end of the old mythological horrors of the Jewish and pagan worlds and their replacement with a religion of radical love. An educated Latin-speaking Christian listening to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for the first time, would have been struck by the sublime newness of his message.  If he had been a student of the rhetorical academy, he would have been taught through Virgil’s Aeneid that the afterlife could be just as cruel as the world. Book VI of the epic poem is unflinching its descriptions of the gruesome fates of the damned. A devout Jew raised on post-exile prophetic literature would have been equally convinced of the reality of perdition. The Book of Enoch (read by Jews and Christians alike in the early centuries) contains a number of horrifying passages, involving lakes of fire and places of perpetual imprisonment. At the heart of these grisly scenes is an image of God most are familiar with.  This is the primordial Sky Father, who waits capriciously for us to fail but rewards us if we comply with his wishes.  As Sigmund Freud sketched out this deity in his essay The Future of an Illusion, the belief in such a being represents ‘one of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection-for protection through love-which was provided by the father . . . Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life’ (p. 30). Yet, like a human father, the supernatural parent who protects us could equally become our most dangerous enemy. In this sense, the divine Father (like the Roman patriarch) has the power of life and death over his children. In this mould, love is always tinged with the possibility of enslavement and violence. Yet, the Jesus community turned such a religious logic firmly on its head, through its emergent understanding of grace. In the faith of Paul and Jesus, God was not a cruel judge but a beneficient king who ’causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45). True, Christianity has as its central image, a father allowing the sacrifice of his son. But the sacrifice is restorative and not punitive.The Father does not kill the son to gratify his own lordly power, but does so in an effort to relinquish power for the sake of his creatures. This notion of self-limiting power radically rewrites the meaning of the Sky Father beyond anything psychoanalysis could imagine. In place of a tyrannical God and the grimness of Hades, Paul offers a hopeful vision of human destiny, in which each person can be reconciled through the actions of a loving parent. Instead of standing idly by while death plays havoc, Paul’s God never gives up on his children until they are all safely gathered to him. As Paul reflects,

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-9)

Here religion is robbed of its habitual Freudian role as the enforcer of the Superego (as a vortex of punishment and guilt) and is transformed into an instrument for the healing of human relationships. At its heart is the possibility that God’s world can be ordered, not by a spirit of spine-chilling judgement, but by the laws of love and truth. While Christianity is always in danger of degenerating into the horror of the gallows or the misery of the prison-house, the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that the power of forgiveness always has the upper-hand over the temptations of condemnation.

The End of Religions of Flattery and Fear

If Christ’s descent protects us from a monstrous Freudian God, it also shields us from a deity of simple benefaction; the kind of being that a person might game or manipulate. In the old religions of the Mediterranean there was always the assumption of patronage between the gods, the community and the worshipper. As long as the supplicant placated the deity with appropriate satisfactions their personal or communal safety could be guaranteed. In this way, religion served as an insurance policy related to the promotion of certain instrumental goods. This model of cultic behaviour is powerfully summarised at the beginning of Homer’s Iliad in the mouth of the priest Chryses. Distressed by the abduction of his daughter by the covetous Agamemnon, this grieving father placates the god Apollo in the following terms:

“God with the silver bow, protector of Chryse, sacred Cilla, mighty lord of Tenedos, Sminthean Apollo, hear my prayer: If I’ve ever pleased you with a holy shrine, or burned bones for you—bulls and goats well wrapped in fat—grant me my prayer. Force the Danaans to pay full price for my tears with your arrows.” (Iliad, Book I)

At its mildest this was a religion which rarely extended beyond tribe or hearth. At its most extreme, this attitude produced the ancient mystery cults of the classical world. These inward-looking faiths promised personal immortality for the select worshipper (as long as the correct rites were observed).  In both cases, God was merely the guarantor of personal desire. While the religion of the Hebrews possessed most of the cultic elements of Greece (including their own mysteries) there was always something unruly about Israel’s God. Yahweh frequently refused the sacred bribery, implicit in popular ritual transactions and condemned those who put sacrifices before social welfare. As the Psalmist records God’s annoyance, ‘for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it’ (Psalm 50:10-12).  Such a god could never be buttered up in order to suit human expectations. The Harrowing of Hell merely confirms this key theological fact. Christ’s descent suggests that God has his own plans for the world, irrespective of the whims and schemes of human beings.

Here God is the great opener, the One who pushes us towards a world we dare not imagine. In this new reality, the rule of force is displaced in favour of a sovereign peace. It was the great doubter, the Greek Sage Epicurus who complained that, “If the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another.” And that is where religion would stay if humans were left to their own devices. Yet, the God of Israel breaks this self-serving religiosity apart by depriving human beings of the satisfaction and fear of annihilation. Jesus dies so that death can have no more hold on the world. With this act, comes the affective end of all politics, all empire and all systems of oppression. Imperial flags may continue to fly, guns deployed and tanks prepared, but in the ultimate sense, it is all for nothing, because Hades, the master of the gun and tank, is a phantom. While all human civilization is based on the threat of obliteration (in the hands of rulers or armies) Jesus’ descent into hell renders death ultimately powerless.

The image of Christ breaking through the gates of hell reveals the ultimate futility of the many and varied little hells humans repeatedly inflict on one another. God has judged these nothing more than puffs of smoke, dispersed in a moment. There is no damage we can do to each other that God cannot rescind.  If we want to be true to this reality, rather than continue to play with shadows, we should live according to the rule of love and not violence. As Paul puts it: ‘Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but enjoy the company of the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Carefully consider what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:16-7).Yet, even this is ultimately about God and not us.  The Father wants us to live in the truth of his love so that he can accomplish his purpose: the renewal of creation. As Paul again informs us: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies’ (8:22-24). While our androcentric religions cling to petty jealousies and endless grudges, the descent of Jesus is the first sign that the cosmic winter is at an end and a new world is breaking in.

In late modernity, we need the assurance of this great thaw like never before.  Religions of both terror and glib self-satisfaction are again on the march. We can see the religions of terror every day on our televisions screens.  In the face of the self-righteous shooter or the zealous bomber, we observe the life of one who does not know that the long night is over and the morning has begun. He is still desperately clinging to the rules of death despite the fact that he is made for life and life at its fullest. Yet beside these merchants of doom, there stand a softer, yet equally seductive cohort. They are the ranks of the spiritually self-conceited those that peddle a comfortable religion of the self.  Here the old brutalities of the superego are replaced by the confidence of a contented Id. Such a religion’s greatest commandment is: Love yourself.  Such a faith encompass everything from the New Age Gurus of ‘positive’ thinking and ‘success’ to those who use their prayers to bargain with God for success, fame or a mortgage.  Like the transactional priests of antiquity, such people don’t want to come out into the spring sunshine to see a world made anew. They would rather stay in their drab little houses getting small gods (tissues of ego and flattery) to do their bidding. They don’t want to be part of the costly gift that Jesus has wrought because they might have to give up the central place they have made for themselves in their own sacred story. They are quite happy to remain under the awfulness of the old order as long as there is a slim chance of keeping a vestige of what they already possess. Of course the grave makes a mockery of this religion of self. In the final analysis, it is not more self-focused spirituality we need, but One who can reach in and pluck us from the darkness waiting to snare us. Thus the truth of our human situation is not to be found in sugary reassurance or fiery condemnation rather in the possibility of absolute love. Can we bear be held by one who cannot be ‘bought off’ or placated. Are we prepared to be loved by one who desires that our tapered identities become something more? If yes, we might have to die to the laws of death (our securities, our defences, our egos) but in dying to these things, we can finally discern the endless reality of life freely given.  Even the wounds of the past are not immune from this life’s power.  Our mistakes and failures are not confined to a locked room, but are something which can always be brought to light again and redeemed. This is what Jesus’ dictum ‘on earth as in heaven’ truly means. When Jesus’ descended’ (as the old creeds put it) time and eternity met and mingled, the one becoming perfected by the other. In this new terrain, there is no space for fear, tears or regret, only the appreciation of a boundless present that reconciles all to itself.  This is religion at its most sublime.


2 thoughts on “Why the Harrowing of Hell Still Matters

  1. Good post, Ben. I enjoyed reading it.

    In my latest book, “What Love Can Do”, I posit the view that God only loves, that Love is only what God CAN do. I suggest that God does not forgive. Indeed, I wonder whether the idea of God’s ‘forgiveness’ is an absurdity.

    I go on to link Love to the idea of perfection, an understanding which interests Quakers. Friends have always believed that perfection (and thus salvation) in this life is possible: Nayler is particularly good on this. Crudely, once in the God-groove (the Kingdom of God, the Light, the Reign of Love etc., etc.) one is perfect and has no need even of ‘free-will’.

    This perfection, of course, cannot be maintained; we are all flawed but the ‘hell’ we experience of being out of perfection is ‘visited’ inevitably by Love (or “Jesus’ if you are a Jesus Testament writer like ‘Peter'”. We then have the ability to exercise our ‘free-will’ and refuse it (or accept it again).

    It’s another way of looking at ‘hell’ I guess, and our propensity to distance (rather than separate) ourselves from Love.

    Anyway, again, thanks for your post.

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