Those whom we love but see no longer?

PurgatoryIt’s time to get seriously controversial in this series on the articles, as I move on to the bare dismissal that is Article 22, as it wafts away the whole medieval economy of death.

XXII. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

I plan to take this in two posts: the first dealing with purgatory and prayer for the dead, and the second with the saints, and their invocation, with a couple of general remarks to begin with. First, Blessèd John Henry, Cardinal Newman (as he then wasn’t), in his notorious Tract 90 made much play with the phrase “Romish Doctrine” to argue that other doctrines were therefore acceptable.

Accordingly, the Primitive doctrine is not condemned in it, unless, indeed, the Primitive Doctrine be the Romish, which must not be supposed. Now there was a primitive doctrine on all these points,–how far Catholic or universal, is a further question—but still so widely received and so respectably supported, that it may well be entertained as a matter of opinion by a theologian now; this, then, whatever be its merits, is not condemned by this Article.

One doubts that this was what the Reformers intended, but to a certain extent the point must be granted: what they attacked was a full-blown economy of the dead, almost, at times, mechanical in its operation, and often appearing to many to lose sight of the fundamental role of Christ as the one mediator who redeems the world, purifies us from our sins, and brings us to life in God.

This is not the context we are in today, and it is quite reasonable to explore the questions so summarily dismissed in the article. Are there understandings of post-mortem purification and a living relationship with the saints that actually need to be considered? Does the great Protestant gulf between the living and the dead in fact do damage to the concept of the Body of Christ? Does it make it harder for faith in the resurrection to be part of the living reality of the Church, rather than past event and future expectation? If the dead are alive in Christ, how are we related to them? These do not seem to be unreasonable questions to ponder.

Before jumping into Purgatory (whither some readers of this may wish to consign me) it’s probably better to begin with the custom of praying for the dead. I have sometimes found myself wondering whether one of the reasons the Reformers excised the deutero-canonical literature was not just the more general Renaissance ad fontes question leading them to draw their (dubious) distinctions between Greek and Hebrew writings, but their desire to remove the most explicit scriptural support for praying for the dead. (This should also remind some Protestants that in claiming there is no biblical support for prayers for the dead, they forget that Catholics have a wider canon, and can claim such support.)

[Judas Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Maccabees 12:43-45 NRSV)

Even to those who don’t see this as Scripture, it provides some evidence for what the possibilities were in both early Judaism and early Christianity. But there are also two NT references which may suggest prayer for the dead was not unknown. One is the quite cryptic and confusing reference to “baptism on behalf of the dead” (1 Cor 15:29) presumably directed at their salvation. Unfortunately Paul fails to reflect on or explain this practice he notes in passing. Subsequent commentators have varied in their understanding of what is referred to. Some have interpreted it so as to remove any possibility of seeing it as a prayer. It remains something tantalising, but ultimately unknown.

The second is a firmer possibility:

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me – may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! (2 Timothy 1:16-18 NRSV)

The mention of Onesiphorus’ household first, and the future-looking petition for him, seem to me to read most naturally as meaning that he has already died, in which case we do have a NT prayer for a specific individual who has died. The beginnings of a textual foundation might be found here, yet as with most practices we then enter a second century dark tunnel, until we emerge with Tertullian saying as part of a longer description of Christian activities: “As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours” (De Corona iii). From then on it is possible to find prayer for the dead regularly evidenced as normal Christian behaviour, with no sense that there is any problem about it.

Purgatory is a separate question, and to my mind comes in part from the tendency of the medieval Latin Church to produce nice tidy systems (something the Reformers were not free from either: viz. Calvinism on double predestination). Here the Scriptural evidence is ambiguous. 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 suggests a judgement which will entail both the loss and destruction of shoddy workmanship, while still saving the worker. Although the temporal reference is to “the Day” [of Judgement], what is envisaged is clearly a purifying process as part of that judgement.

It is unclear whether there are other passages that offer any basis for any intermediate state. Some have found three states in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5: clothed in our earthly body, clothed again in a spiritual body and in-between times unclothed. This is possible, but far from certain, yet Paul does seem to speak of the person as an entity to be embodied one way or the other, in a way which seems in some tension with his fuller statements in 1 Corinthians 15. It suggests “sleep” may not be the only metaphor Paul could have employed for the interval between death and resurrection.

The most one can say is that an intermediate state, or purifying process is not entirely ruled out by Scripture, and may be hinted at, albeit obscurely. Prayer for the dead has firmer foundations, may actually have a NT exemplar and certainly emerges as normative Christian practice quite early. To some extent understandings of purgatory relate to a later desire to codify and systematize this practice – in my view unnecessarily. I think it unwise either to make dogmatic statements about the ways in which God heals and purifies those who we see no longer, except to say that whatever God does, and in however long or short a time he does it, the hurts of our lives are healed, and the mess of our lives is cleansed.

But we who live on earth are intimately related as brothers and sisters in Christ to those who are alive in him the other side of the grave. And part of what needs healing for those we knew is their relationship with us, which even in the best of cases, falls short of perfection. Our prayer for them is in some sense, perhaps, a contribution to the healing of those relationships, and our letting go of them into their life with God. It seems to me a perfectly proper recognition of their present and future in God’s hands that we should indeed pray for them, that they with us might come to the fullness of the resurrection, the easing of our hurts, the reconciliation of our divisions, the perfecting of all our relationships in communion with the Blessed Trinity, and the healing of all creation.

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.”