The Harrowing of Hell

posted in: Encouragement | 26

And so here we are: this is Holy Week, the final days of Lent. It is a time jam-packed with emotional lows and highs, powerful theology and moving services such as the foot washing of Maundy Thursday, the darkness of Tenebrae, and the vigils of Saturday night. Or maybe you are braving the Good Friday service with your four-year-old. There’s a story I really want to tell you sometime about when Zach went to a service where he saw a Jesus as an actor put up on a cross. He was very disappointed in the behavior of the centurions, but that’s for another day.

In this Lenten reflection, I want to talk about an often overlooked part of the week and the message that it bears. I want to talk about the Harrowing of Hell.

Christian tradition says that after his crucifixion and entombment, Jesus arose and embarked on a mission of rescue. Many of us recite that as part of the Apostles’ or the Athanasian Creed: “He was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into Hell.” But what was Christ doing in the infernal regions? What business had he in Hell? Thousands of medieval paintings, mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts depict Jesus leading Adam firmly by the wrist as they, Eve, and a line of Old Testament figures emerge from the darkest depths into the light. At the feet of Christ are the tools of imprisonment—locks, keys, and chains—and a demon crushed by the gates of Hell which Christ has blown open.

In Dante’s Inferno, the poet’s guide Virgil (who had been present among the dead at the time) tells him of how he had personally seen “a powerful one” come to retrieve the Hebrew patriarchs, but my favorite literary depiction of this episode comes from the 14th-century poem in Middle English called Piers Plowman by John Langland. It depicts Christ’s arrival in the devil’s kingdom as a sudden explosion of light, in a place that had known light only once before, when Lazarus had been summoned back to life by Jesus. The various fiends are much disturbed by this but the archdevil is determined to tough it out; these sinners’ souls, after all, belonged rightfully to him. But the light is at the gate:

Again the light commanded them to unlock, and Lucifer answered, “Who is this? What lord are you?” Swiftly the light replied: “The king of glory; the Lord of might and main and all manner of virtues; the Lord of power. Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates at once, that Christ may come in, the King of heaven’s Son!”

And with that breath hell broke open, and Belial’s bars; in spite of any guard or watchman, the gates opened wide. Patriarchs and prophets, the people in darkness, sang St John’s song: ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ Lucifer could not look, he was so blinded by light. And those whom Our Lord loved he caught up into his light, and said to Satan:

“Lo, here is my soul to make amends for all sinful souls, to save those who are worthy. Mine they are, and of me, and so I may the better claim them… I will lead from hence the people whom I loved and who believed in my coming.”

Some theologians, ancient and modern, have expressed misgivings about this story and some even refuse to recite the line about the descent into Hell when they say the Creed. But for me, the message is far too powerful to be ignored. It is a simple message: there is no place you can go where God will not find you and lead you home. All the scars that cover us, all the wounds that we have inflicted on others, all the pain that you carry, don’t matter in the end. All our dirt will be cleansed, our incisions healed, our grief wiped away. Nobody who wants to go with him gets left behind.

May God bless you with a joyful Easter.  And if you’re one of the lucky ones chosen as the Roman centurion in this year’s play, I apologize in advance for my kid.

26 Responses

  1. Trish

    It was a joy to have you read this to me this morning. Thank you for a beautiful explanation that I had honestly not thought about before. God Bless!

  2. Cathy Dempesy-Sims

    In my Episcopal tradition we have a liturgy for Holy Saturday. It is brief and stark. It is the day of utter absence because God is in the depths of darkness blowing every particle of darkness apart through God’s outrageous, all powerful, never ending light.
    I love this day of being in the abyss. It gives me a taste of “life” without God, “life” without God in the flesh, Jesus. Thanks Kate for your reflection. It adds to my Homy Week.

    • Yvonne Sica

      I have said the Apostles creed so many times and have not stopped to think about,” Descended into hell.” Thank you for being “the light” at Lent. I have learned and reflected.

  3. Doug Hahn

    Dear Kate,
    Thank you for this beautiful meditation. I to find great solace and hope in Christ harrowing of hell. I do have one objection theologically in the portrayal in art and in the poem you quote, and that is the images of prophets and patriarchs living in hell, as it plays into our triumphalist (over Judaism) theology.
    I am more challenged in my faith to imagine that liberated parade including Cain, Pharaoh, and Judas, not to mention more recent incarnations of evil.
    Thank you for your meditations. I pray for you with gratitude.
    God’s Peace

    • Belva Williams

      And I see myself there with Cain, Pharaoh, and Judas. Like them there is no place I can go that God will not find me and lead me home.

  4. Amanda

    Good morning, Kate. Your email appeared this morning as I went on line to search for… what was it? I don’t recall anymore. Thank you. This time of year always stirs up so much. The breakdown I had in April age 23 (I’m now 58) on a year when, like this year, Easter and Passover coincided, the intensity of all my crazy angry conflict-ridden family history playing out as a war between the faiths, the way I feel so broken always underneath it all, the many efforts to construct a home over the brokenness, to slap some make-up on that tender scab…. well, there’s so much more to this, but not for now. There’s some kind of karma moment happening for me; I keep getting another chance to learn and to awaken… let’s leave it at that for now. Just wanted to express my gratitude to you for your great courage, always compassionate presence, ability to share of your intelligence and humor from this deep place of hurt AND faith and self-acceptance. Blessings and Love to you. Thank you – Amanda

  5. Mark Notess

    I love this, especially the Piers Plowman imagery. I made my own peace with “descended in to hell” by looking more carefully at what the New Testament means by hell. When I think of it now it is, in my mind, simply a synonym for death. Perhaps not what the Creed intended but oh well.

  6. JOHN S SILL

    Kate–
    Well done. I have tried to picture what might have happened when Jesus went to the place of the dead. This gives us a possible picture.

  7. pat gleason

    This opened my eyes. Like others, never thought about what I was merely repeating in the Creed. I will think of it every time now. I know that God will find me

  8. Meredith

    Got lots more where this came from – taught a new course last fall on hell. Curious thing: it strengthened rather than weakening the faith of our students. And of course you know the Anastasis (“resurrection” in Greek, but of course known as the harrowing of hell in English for some reason) fresco from the Chora monastery in Istanbul is located in the funerary chapel, so that as you mourn the death of a loved one, you gaze upon the powerful image of Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of hell with such force that the hardware and hinges are flying! Powerful, comforting, real.

  9. Deborah Michael

    What an amazing thought:
    There is no place you can go where God will not find you and take you home.
    I have been in some dark places and this is a huge comfort. Thank you and Happy Easter.

  10. Marilyn Bamford

    Thank you. May you and your dear family have a blessed Holy Week. I loved what you wrote for today….❤️

  11. John J. Shaffer

    A clear reminder of the fact that the “grace of God” can go anywhere. Such historic teachings strengthens my own faith and belief in “universal salvation”. I have some problem with the historic teaching that salvation only comes through Christ, but this is a reminder that Christ “saved” those who came before him.

    For myself, the Book of Jonah also provides that message. Ezra, not so much. I now have the courage to say it out loud: “There is a Hell and it is empty.” It is one way to upset some of the saints who think they have an exclusive claim on salvation. Jonah was upset by the graciousness of God and some of my friends repeat his mistake.

  12. Ken Penner

    As always, brilliantly written and perfectly parsed for those of us who enjoy theology but still need an application…and for the record, I’m with Zach.

  13. Lois Mitchell

    Like many,I repeat the creed without listening to myself. Thank you dear Kate for a well needed wake-up call. I will listen, reflect, and be comforted…Halleluyah!

  14. Jackie L

    Oh Kate, I believe you are Gods messenger to bring news that joy, pain and suffering are compliments of Gods favor to send the message that we are called, each by name. That subtle voice is my Savior walking alongside. When the dark night is over, rise ye in the morning! Thank you dear Kate, for bearing your news that God is everywhere and loves us always. You are a special person. Jackie

  15. Nancy

    Thank you, Kate for another powerful and inspirational message during Holy Week. I had never really thought about Christ’s purpose in “descending into hell” before. How comforting to think that He went to bring those souls He had created and deeply loved back to Him. I love the thought that He will always find us wherever we are and bring us “home” to Him. Thank you, Kate for being a “light” in this world and sharing your gifts of speaking and writing with those of us who are hungry for God.

  16. Rowan Raphael

    Thank you Kate for shedding some radiant light on the truly damnable doctrine of a hell where all who do not believe exactly as us evangelicals do, will spend eternity in conscious torment. Even Hitler’s victims died and thus escaped the torture. Apparently our loving Heavenly Father has created a hellish torture that is eternal. Go figure.

  17. BC Cloutier

    Wow, Kate. I just finished reading “Everything Happens for a Reason…” and I googled you thinking I would read of your death. But, no…! Obviously, your positive attitude and your faith in God have given you more time to set an example for others. God bless you and may you continue to flourish.

  18. Raquel

    Every time I recite the apostles creed that line bothers me, over half a century. I will always remember this explanation thank you

  19. Alex

    I too have recited the Creed for over half a century and never reflected on “descended into Hell”. I remember as young child being troubled by the fact that my non Christian friends, unrepentant sinners and others were going to Hell. My teachers had no better explanation other than “they will need to find Jesus”. Well, isn’t it a lovely thought that he will find them. Even at the last moment. Hallelujah. I will be sharing good times in the after life with all souls!

  20. Charles Michael Smith

    As a frustrated UM pastor/theologian who has been fortunate to plan, lead, & teach worship across the NC Conference & at Duke Divinity School & Course of Study, & served on our Hymnal Revision Committee for UMH1989, it frustrates me no end that we stick to our hymnal’s Traditional version of The Apostles’ Creed in probably 95% of our local churches which omit this belief doe to Wesley’s not liking it. We of course have the Ecumenical Version as well that includes “He descended to the dead” but that is seldom used in our SEJ & SCJ congregations. I maintained in one of Lester Ruth’s classes when he joined us at DDS that the UMC needed to discuss & teach this because to me it makes your point & that of the psalmist: “If I make my bed in Sheol (anywhere), thou art there.” Wish more liturgy teachers & theologians would see this as a point worth making in our weekly recital of the AC in our worship services. Thanks for doing it so well.

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