Down among the dead men

Albrecht Dürer's Harrowing of Hell
image © V & A Museum

It may seem strange, on getting back to my series on the Anglican 39 articles, to arrive at the Harrowing of Hell in Christmastide! Perhaps the strangeness is only superficial: the cause of our Christmas celebration is what ultimately discloses the depth of the Easter festival.

The article is barely more than a recitation of a line from the Apostles’ Creed:

III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

Such brevity may suggest a certain reticence. Presumably this is caught up in the rejection of so much of the history and cartography of the afterlife at the Reformation, to say nothing about mediaeval hopes for post-mortem salvation. I think the reticence persists: our rejection of ancient cosmologies of heaven and hell is so much more complete, that we don’t know what to do with this language. Yet where the article is short, I fear this post is long.

Apart from my own (and I can only remember two occasions) I can recall hearing not a single sermon on Christ’s descent to the dead. Even if we do as I have just done, and the modern translation of the Creed also does, and translate Hell as “the dead”, it doesn’t seem to render it any more palatable for preachers.

For those who might preach on it liturgically, no doubt we should attribute this lack of sermonising to the fact that people don’t normally preach on Holy Saturday. The day before focusses naturally on the cross, and the day after on the resurrection, and we never stop to deal with the question felt so keenly by the Christians of late antiquity: what was the divine Son of God doing when he embraced death in his human nature?

Then there is another problem for those who might preach on it in the course of moving sequentially through one or other epistle. The verses on which it was once held to be based are now more commonly read in a different way. Cranmer’s original 1552 draft tried to locate the idea in scripture.

III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell
As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell. For the body laid in the Sepulchre, until the resurrection: but his Ghost departing from him, was with the Ghosts that were in prison, or in Hell, and did preach to the same, as the place of S. Peter doth testify. (I’ve modernised spelling, but not language)

The relevant verses are:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20 NRSV)


For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. (1 Peter 4:6 NRSV)

The other place where he could have sought a basis for this doctrine (and where others have found it) is this:

Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:8-10 NRSV)

The problem is that many scholars today don’t believe that the descent of Christ to the dead is the original meaning of these passages: even if they can’t agree on what that meaning was (and they can’t) they do tend to agree in ruling out the descent to hell. I find myself persuaded and think that:

  • the spirits in prison belong to the mythology found in some apocalyptic literature and refer to disobedient angels
  • “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” means Christ’s proclamation of the defeat of evil powers while on his triumphal resurrection procession to his heavenly home
  • the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead means that it was preached to those who have died (in the flesh) since they heard it, but because of it, are now alive in the spirit.
  • and that in Ephesians the phrase “he also descended into the lower parts of the earth” needs interpreting differently since κατέβη gives no justification for the English pluperfect. “He who descended is the same one who ascended” is possibly about the incarnation, but more likely about the identity of the gifts of the descended Spirit with the gifts of the ascended Christ.

Where then, shall we go with this article? First, I think we can more readily appreciate, and draw on the literary and artistic portrayals of the harrowing of hell. Poetry, drama, and art draw out the metaphors, mystery and mythology of Christ’s defeat of death in ways that propositional theology never will. One such is Albrecht Dürer’s 1510 woodcut above, from the V & A. Another is his excerpt from Piers Plowman (B text, Passus 18):

I here and see bothe
A spirit speketh to helle and biddeth unspere the yates:
“Attolite portas.”
A vois loude in that light to Lucifer crieth,
“Prynees of this place, unpynneth and unlouketh!
For here cometh with crowne that kyng is of glorie.”
Thanne sikede Sathan, and seide to helle,
“Swich a light, ayeins oure leve, Lazar it fette;
Care and combraunce is comen to us alle!
If this kyng come in, mankynde wole he fecche,
And lede it ther Lazar is, and lightliche me bynde.
Patriarkes and prophetes han parled herof longe –
That swich a lord and a light shal lede hem alle hennes.’

Which being translated

I both see and hear it.
A spirit bids hell unbar its gates.
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates”
A loud voice from this shining light calls out to Lucifer
“Prince of this place, unbolt and unlock,
For he comes who is crowned king of glory.”
Then Satan sighed, and said to hell,
“A light like this came once before, and fetched Lazarus out:
Grief and trouble has come to us all!
If this king comes in, he will fetch out humankind,
and lead them where Lazarus is, and swiftly bind me.
Patriarchs and prophets have long spoken of this –
that such a lord, such a light, would lead them all hence.”

The mediaeval myth owes more to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus than it does to canonical scripture, but is dramatically compelling, even if (like many apocryphal writings) it goes into detail where scripture is reticent. Yet the sense that the release of those who were in death’s dark prison belongs to the victory of the cross, and that that victory stretches back in time as well as forwards, is profoundly important. Victory over death, celebrated in this poetic dramatisation, and affirmed by this article, is a significant outworking of a pre-Augustinian model of atonement.

Incidentally, when you have a spare hour, do watch this excellent lecture by Ben Myers in which he explains the Patristic model of the atonement (and takes Gustav Aulen out to the woodshed in the process). It offers good reasons for taking Christ’s descent to the dead as essential to Christian gospel telling.

How then can we speak of Christ doing anything when he is dead (in his human nature)? How can we speak of Christ being dead, when he is eternally living (in his divine nature)?

We need a theology of Holy Saturday as well as Good Friday and Easter Day. Christ’s being dead in his human nature needs to be affirmed, as sabbath at the end of accomplishing his Father’s work, as the void from which new creation will begin on the first day of the week, and as the means of turning the rest of death into the Eternal Sabbath of resting in life with God. (Memo to self, must read von Balthasar one day!)

In that sense, I would take my scriptural bearings from Rom 4:17: ” God … who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”. There is a parallel between the works of creation and resurrection, which is seen in the Christ hymn of Colossians, which is worked out dramatically in John’s Gospel, and yet is often overlooked.

The formless void at the start of Genesis, represents a space where God is not active, or perhaps even not present, a space from which he has, as it were, withdrawn himself, so that creation – what is not God – may be brought into being. Similarly, death is as far from God as one may be, and still in some sense be spoken of as being, however shadowy (as in the First Testament) that existence might be conceived of as (not quite) being.

Christ (as both agent of creation as well as agent of resurrection) is the God who goes where God is not, so that what is not God may be drawn into the eternal love, which is the life of the Trinity.

To say “he went down into hell” is a fundamental affirmation that God’s love reaches the very depths not only of creation’s being, but of its non-being. The universe, as far as we know it, tends to dissolution with the increase of entropy. Our lives are bounded by the non-being of death. The word of God brings order out of chaos, not only in the founding myths of creation, but in the eschatological hope of new creation, drawing even the most disordered aspects of this existence, epitomized by the dissolution of death, into a new and renewed order of love.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39 NRSV)

That, in different words from St Paul, is the essential expression of “he went down into hell.”

One Reply to “Down among the dead men”

  1. Thanks, Doug, enjoyed this and will watch that lecture and dust off dear off Gustaf ( Oh blow, lost my copy a few years again in a move, I think!) Aulen was key to my Lambeth Diploma dissertation. Ouch! Except that the atonement theory I suggested there I would now leave behind anyway! Well it was 20 years ago! But the quantum mechanics stuff I did is still seminal to me. The irrelevance of the psychological arrow of time being one way is a point you touch on which contemporary theologians still ignore, being caught up in neoplatonism, Thomism, Cartesian illusion and the Marxist distraction. Come back Aristotle, Duns Scotus, oh, and Frances, too!

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