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On the harrowing of hell

The Covenant Catechesis Series

This post is a response to a question submitted a couple weeks ago to Covenant on the “harrowing of hell.” It was adapted from a talk on the Creed given by Sam Keyes in 2014. If any readers have further theological questions, they can submit them to zack[at]livingchurch.org. Answers will be offered by various contributors and will, Lord willing, form an ongoing series. The answers offered do not necessarily reflect the views of all Covenant contributors. 

“He descended into hell.”

No line from the Apostles’ Creed (or the Nicene Creed) stands entirely alone. In particular, we might frame the whole Creed as an elaboration on the first line: I believe in God. That is, “I trust in God, and here, in these following statements, I outline why that God is in fact trustworthy.” (For a longer exposition on that theme, see Rowan Williams’ wonderful book, Tokens of Trust.)

It may be hard to see at first glance what the descent to hell — or the descent “to the dead,” as some translations put it — has to do with God’s trustworthiness.

I want to highlight three things that I think both tell us the why of the Son’s descent, as well as the so what, and these are (1) Christ’s provision, (2) Christ’s presence, and (3) Christ’s power.

1. Christ’s provision

Anyone with a heart, when faced with the Christian story of the Incarnation, almost inevitably rubs up against the exclusive claims implicit in the story. If Jesus is the salvation of the world, if Jesus is, in his own words, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), without whom no one can come to the Father, where does this leave those who have not met Jesus? In other words, it just doesn’t seem fair.

This is hardly a new question for the Christian tradition, and one of the key things for us to remember today may simply be that the Church has always dealt with and struggled with the exclusive aspect of her gospel. And there are a variety of good ways to answer the challenge, both in the past and today, that take into account both God’s sovereignty and human free will.

The crux of the problem, though, from the standpoint of the New Testament and of the early Church, was not Christ’s exclusivity in relation to other religions, but Christ’s exclusivity in relation to the Jews. If Jesus was and is the Jewish Messiah, what happens to all of those people, especially the people of Israel, who lived before his coming? Do they not have any access to his defeat of sin and death?

1 Peter 3:19-20 speaks of Jesus dying and “preaching to the spirits in prison.” There has always been some amount of controversy attached to this passage in terms of its literal meaning — and we can extend that controversy to the whole notion of the Son’s “descent into hell.” Surely we do not want to affirm that hell is a place that is literally “below,” like the Greco-Roman underworld. Nor is it entirely clear what it would mean for Jesus to preach, while dead, to those who are also dead.

Putting those problems aside, the tradition is mostly clear in why Jesus would “preach to the spirits in prison” — and this we can sum as the Lord’s provision for those who died before his Incarnation. God’s salvation was never meant to exclude those who expected it but never found it.

And so Jesus, while in the tomb, “goes to the dead.” He goes to the souls who never saw his appearing, who never heard of his salvation, and “preaches” to them the good news of his Incarnation, his death, and his impending Resurrection. He offers them salvation.

This is what is traditionally called the “harrowing” of hell. The term comes from medieval English and from agriculture, where a harrow is used to prepare the soil for planting. Jesus “harrowed” hell in that he went over it, like lumpy soil, and broke it apart. He prepared its inhabitants for better things. In another way, he despoiled it: he stole from hell its captives (cf. Ps. 68:18; Eph. 4:8-10).

This story, even though it has only the most skeletal foundation in Scripture, loomed large in the imagination of the Church for most of her history. And this was not just because people had naïve views about the afterlife or about a three-storied universe with earth in the middle, heaven above, and hell beneath. It was because the story somehow conveyed the beauty of God’s provision for humanity, the beauty of Christ’s salvation and its ability to reach all people. In a wonderful ancient homily on Holy Saturday, Jesus enters hell and takes Adam, the first man, by the hand. He says to him:

Arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

2. Christ’s presence

Whatever it means to say that Christ descended to hell, or went to the dead, it means, before all else, that he himself was dead.

It is easy to make the descent to the dead into an activity, into yet another powerful work of the incarnate Son of God. And it is that, as I have already suggested and will suggest again in a moment. But such activity is, in large part, on the level of theory and speculation for us. It is also important for us simply to acknowledge that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, really and truly died.

This is, again, to put aside any question of what that death may have accomplished. Jesus was dead. In his Mysterium Paschale, Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it rather starkly when he says that if, in the tomb, the Son remained obedient to the Father, it would necessarily be the obedience of a corpse.

The Son of God was, for a time, a corpse. A dead body bereft of its soul and life.

I have no idea what it could possibly mean to say that the divine Son was a corpse, other than to suggest that somehow, even in the most definitive place of absence, of loss and destruction, of corruption, of evil, Christ is there — Christ is present. He has plumbed the depths of human loss in the most literal way possible: not as a tourist, not as a voyeur, not as an objective outsider doing analysis, but as a man who experienced it all, even unto death and into death.

And this is another way of thinking about Christ’s “preaching” to the souls in prison. Christ, in being dead, has shown solidarity with the dead. He is one of them. And it is exactly because he became one of the dead that he could preach to the dead, that he could bring them the salvation that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. Christ was dead, and so there is no place free of his presence. Even his absence from life became his presence to the dead.

3. Christ’s power

In his words to Peter in Matthew 16:18, Jesus says that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against his Church. On Holy Saturday, Christ was dead, and, out of that real death, he rose to new life. “Death no longer has dominion over him,” as St. Paul writes in Romans 6:9.

In the first chapter of Revelation, Jesus appears to John and says, “I died, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). It turns out that Christ went to the dead not merely to show his solidarity with them; he went to the dead to break the power of death. Death and hell have been evicted from the innermost shrine of their power. Death is not the final judge of men and women: Jesus is. Having experienced death, he has taken death into himself. Having plumbed the depths of the abyss, he has filled the abyss with his presence, his love, and his power.

Here is a God we can trust: the Lord Jesus Christ, whose absolute lack of self-interest throws him to the place where he is not even what he is, where he is present to us exactly by being absent to himself; whose love is so powerful that it can be powerful even in the place where power is meaningless and useless and dead.

We can trust this God even in the meaningless and powerless and dead things of the world. He has been there, wherever our hell is. He is waiting for us, where we least expect him, to bring us out, as he did Adam and countless others. To return to that ancient homily:

The … throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.


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