Harrowing of hell

he descended to the dead.

Firstly let me re-stress something. The ever-popular author, Dan Brown, gets it exactly back to front. In The Da Vinci Code he has the gnostics, whom early mainline Christians considered as having false teaching, as thinking that Jesus was fully human, and he has early “mainline” Christians as teaching Jesus was God pretending to be human. In fact the gnostics, what mainline regarded as false teaching, taught that Jesus was only pretending to be human. We call them docetists from the Greek dokesis – appearing, seeming to be human. But Jesus was fully human. That’s the mainline Christian teaching. And when he died, he really died. He didn’t pretend to die.

Then in the Apostles’ Creed we come to this strange line:
he descended to the dead.

The word “descended” I hope gives you a clue we have shifted gear out of history into metaphor, into picture language.

Latin: descendit ad inferos (inferos – noun pl masc acc – inferus – below, beneath, underneath, lower). Inferos becomes a metaphor for the place of the dead. Sometimes this “lower” place, this underworld, this place of death, is translated as “hell”.

I won’t go through the whole story of the picture (above). But in the collection of stories around this metaphor, a piece of the tree of life was taken with Adam and Eve when they were kicked out of Paradise. That sapling was planted over Adam’s grave. The story goes on, and ends with Jesus dying on the wood from that tree. And with Jesus dying on this new tree of life, his blood flows down onto the grave of Adam.

The picture (above) has Jesus smashing the gates of this underworld, this hell. Not only the gates, but all the chains and locks. And Jesus, in the picture, is helping Adam and Eve up and out of this place of being trapped, of being locked, of being chained.

Adam and Eve, of course, are us all. And this smashing, and rescuing us from the hell we find ourselves in, the hell we make for ourselves, that isn’t just something that happened 2,000 years ago – it’s happening all the time.

And this hell isn’t just something after we die – this is the hell we find ourselves in, the hell we make for ourselves – in this life. The hurt we do to one another, the hurt we absorb from one another, the chains we bind others with, the chains we allow ourselves to be bound by – all the things that limit us, all the things that enslave us, addict us.

And the picture has Jesus descending into this, smashing the doors, smashing all our chains.

And then we turn the picture around. When I wrote about Holy Saturday I said we find ourselves at different points in the Christ story. So, yes, sometimes we find ourselves feeling trapped, feeling addicted, feeling in a hell of our own making or of the making of others. And Christ comes to us, descends into our hell, and helps us. And Christ comes to us in and through others, friend, family member, stranger…

And then at other times – you are the one who are called to be Christ. You need to step up and descend into the hell of another person’s life. That may be the big hell of Syrian refugees or other world issues. Or the day-to-day hells of the pain of people around you. Be a friend to them – and that might include challenging them, smashing what enchains them…

Descending to the dead isn’t the negative it sounds – it’s actually a positive about bringing life to people. A positive that happens to us – and a positive you and I can be part of sharing in – in little things and in the big things.


This is the sixteenth post in a series on the Creed.

The first is Apostles’ Creed.
The second is I believe in God.
The third is a source of the Apostles’ Creed.
The fourth is I believe in the Father.
The fifth is Handing over the Creed.
The sixth is I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son
The seventh is Don’t use the creed in worship
They eighth is Truly God truly human
The ninth is Conceived by the Holy Spirit
The tenth is Don’t use the creed in worship (part 2)
The eleventh is Born of the Virgin Mary
The twelfth is Don’t use the creed in worship (part 3)
The thirteenth is Crucified under Pontius Pilate
The fourteenth is crucified
The fifteenth is Holy Saturday

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