harrowing of hell

I’ve always liked the line in the apostle’s creed that goes “He descended into hell.”  I’m not sure why.  I didn’t understand it at all as a kid (and am still searching for understanding now).  But I think the graphic nature of it, and the opportunity to say a swear word in church, caught my attention.  It seemed very serious and intense and probably exciting.  Lots of artists have had fun with the images too:

Miniature from St. Alban’s Psalter (ca. 1125)

“Descent of Christ to Limbo” (Fresco, Cappella Spagnuolo, Santa Maria Novella, Florence) ca. 1365

Christ’s Descent into Limbo, Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1470

detail of Christ helping Adam to rise from “Descent of Christ to Limbo”  (Gerolamo di Romano, Church of Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne, Italy) ca. 1533

Far out, huh?  A quick google image search will turn up a bunch more where that came from.

The “Harrowing of Hell” is the fancy name we’ve given to the idea that between his death and his resurrection Jesus didn’t just hang out, or sleep, or rest, but that he went down into hell.

I’ve been thinking about it because it comes up in the middle of the text I’m going to preach on this week. “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:19, KJV)

That and two other itty-bitty lines of scripture (Matthew 27:52 “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” and Ephesians 4:8-9 “he made captivity itself a captive”) stand behind this claim we make in our creeds.  It’s a pretty slim scriptural basis for such a shocking claim, don’t you think?

So, our most basic Christian creed claims that Jesus went down to hell.  A further implication that many would claim on the basis of scripture, but that our creed leaves out, is that Jesus not only went down into hell, but he set people free, too.  That’s what you see in a lot of the artwork.  Jesus is leading people out of hell.  Which raises all kinds of hard questions: did he lead everyone out of hell?  Is hell empty?  Was it empty for a time and it’s been filling up since?

And, of course, in our age, we’re more or less all of the opinion that hell is not “below” us, at least not how we say the ground is below us.  So talking about this part of the creed also raises all of our questions like:

  • whether or not hell exists (some faithful, orthodox Christians say yes, and some faithful, orthodox Christians say no)
  • what it’s like (eternal conscious torture and terror, or a state of separation from God, or just nothingness, or a condition that we experience in our everyday lives – all of which are possibilities given Christian belief and biblical witness)
  • why someone would end up there if it exists (incorrect belief, particularly bad actions, capricious will of God… to name just three widely held Christian opinions)

I wouldn’t claim to have these all figured out.  I do think Rob Bell has done us a service by tackling a lot of these questions in accessible, contemporary language in Love Wins.  His subtitle claims to cover it all “a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived” and he does manage to cover a lot of that.  I’ll leave that to him for now.

All I want to add is why I love this part of our creed, this crazy claim that Jesus descended into hell and liberated the captives there.  I love it and hold it dear because it claims that there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere, we can go that is outside of the reign of God’s love.  There is no misery or subjugation or captivity, literally no fresh hell in which we might find ourselves where Christ has not already gone.  And that, friends, seems to me to be really, really good news.

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