The Harrowing of Hell

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Peter 3:18-20
Mark 15:34

When we confess together that Jesus Christ “descended into hell,” what does that mean?

Of all the phrases in the Apostles’ Creed with which we as Christians confess our faith, I don’t think any is more puzzling than the statement that comes in between what we believe about Christ’s death and his resurrection. After we say that he was “crucified, dead and buried,” and before we proclaim that “on the third day he rose again from the dead,” we confess together that Jesus Christ “descended into hell.” What does that mean?

Proclaiming Victory to the Spirits

It may not mean exactly what it appears to. In the first place, the word hell can mislead us. The ordinary biblical words for hell in the original languages (sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek) did not mean the place of ultimate punishment (which is how we think of hell) but referred simply to the abode of all the dead, both righteous and unrighteous. Thus some modern versions of the Creed substitute the phrase “He descended to the dead” or “to Hades” for the words “He descended into hell.” There are several references in the New Testament that seem to indicate that Jesus at some point and in some way did descend to this realm of the dead. In Ephesians, chapter 4, for example, the apostle Paul quotes from Psalm 68:18, applying it to Christ.

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (v. 7)

And then Paul adds,

In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. (vv. 8-10)

Another epistle takes this idea a step farther. In 1 Peter 3:18-20 we read this statement about the sacrificial death of Christ:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit . . .

So far, so good. But then Peter goes on to write one of the most obscure and puzzling sentences in the whole Bible.

. . . [Christ was] made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah. . .

And we read that and stop and say, “What in the world does that mean?” Who are these spirits to whom Christ went? And when did he go there? And what was the prison in which they were being held, and where was it? And what did he proclaim to them when he got there? And what was the result of this preaching? And to all these questions we must say honestly that we have no clear answers. But on the basis of these cryptic biblical references the early church developed an idea that came to be called “The Harrowing of Hell.”

In medieval English the word harrow meant to pillage or plunder. The harrowing of hell meant that Christ, in the time between his death and resurrection, while his body lay in the tomb, went in spirit to the kingdom of the dead. He descended into hell, said Luther, “not to suffer, but to proclaim His victory over His enemies” (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, article 150). He plundered hell. He pillaged it. He knocked down the gates and he declared to the powers of evil that he was the victor. When Christ visited “the underworld” he broke the bars of hell and announced Satan’s doom. And he did something more. He also released from captivity the souls of the Old Testament saints whose hope in life had been the promised Messiah of Israel. An ancient homily for Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, proclaims this:

Today a great silence reigns on earth . . . because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who ever slept since the world began . . . he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him. . .

(quoted in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 635)

When in The Divine Comedy the poet Dante visits Limbo, the region in the topmost circle of hell reserved for noble pagans and Old Testament saints, he asks if any have ever escaped from there. Dante’s guide, the Roman poet Virgil, answers,

I was newly in this place
When I saw come down here a mighty One
Crowned with the symbol of his victory.

And this triumphant King, Virgil goes on to say, rescued the souls of Adam and Eve, of Moses and Abraham and David and the Patriarchs,

And many others, and he made them blessed.

(The Divine Comedy, translated by James Finn Cotter, Book IV, lines 52ff.)

The God-forsaken God

This is a wonderful idea. And as I say, it has been extremely popular in Medieval and early Christian thought and imagination. But is it true to the Bible’s teaching? And that it is very difficult to say. Now, the idea that Christ by his death and resurrection has overthrown Satan’s power and has pillaged the kingdom of darkness is both wonderfully true and clearly proclaimed in the New Testament. Colossians 2:15, for example, says that God “disarmed the [demonic] rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in Christ [or in the cross].” But it is less clear from the New Testament that we can say exactly what Christ did or where he went or what his experience was during those dark hours between the cross and the resurrection. Nor do we have much basis other than church tradition and poetic speculation that Old Testament believers were languishing in Limbo until Christ visited them and set them free, as opposed to simply being with the Lord on the basis of their faith in his promises.

But what can we say, then, about the statement that Christ “descended into hell”? Is this simply another way of saying that he really and truly died? No, I think we can say more than that. Reformed theology has seen in this statement a reference to the deepest part of Christ’s suffering on our behalf. It doesn’t refer to an experience Christ had after he died, but one he had before he died. Think of the terrible scene on Golgotha. Ever since midday the hill had been shrouded in an unearthly darkness, as though the creation itself did not want to see what was happening. And then from out of the gloom came an anguished cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

And what do those words signify? This cry from the darkness has long troubled many people. Can Jesus’ cry of desolation really mean what it seems to? God would never desert or abandon or forsake his righteous Son, would he? Could he even do that? Jesus, as every Christian believes, was actually God himself, God in human form. How could God desert himself? How is it possible for God to forsake God?

I don’t think anyone can ever understand the depth of the meaning of the cross of Christ without coming to grips with these words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They truly express the ultimate nature of Christ’s suffering for us, in our place, on our behalf. It was not just the physical suffering (the wounds, the weariness, the thirst), or the psychological suffering (the taunting by the crowd, desertion by his friends). No, Christ’s deepest pain was spiritual. Before he died physically, he died spiritually. He passed through the dreadful experience of being cut off and forsaken by God. He was separated from the living God who is life itself. Jesus Christ, God the Son, was cut off from God the Father.

That does seem utterly incredible. How can the Father abandon the Son? How can God forsake himself? This mystery is beyond our grasp, yet in it lies our salvation. Jesus so closely identified with sinners on the cross, the Bible says, that “he was made to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). He took our place there and allowed sin’s ultimate punishment to fall upon himself. In doing so, he absorbed God’s judgment and was cut off from God as we forever should have been.

The truth, wonderful beyond the power of words to express, is that God has paid the price for sin, and paid it in full. There is nothing left for us to contribute. Jesus’ cry of desertion and abandonment on the cross alerts us to the moment when he made this full and final payment. It reveals the lowest depths to which he went because in order to save us Jesus literally went to hell. Hell, you know, isn’t fire and flame and darkness. Those are only symbols. Hell is being separated from the presence of God. And that is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross. That was hell for him so that there wouldn’t have to be any for all those who believe in him.

“Why does the creed add, ‘He descended into hell’?” asks the Heidelberg Catechism. And it answers, “To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross . . . has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell” (Q. and A. 44).

Because Jesus was once abandoned by God, you and I will never be. Can we ever thank him enough?