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Harrowing of hell

He descended to the dead

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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9 thoughts on “He descended to the dead”

  1. I find to the dead an odd phrase having been brought up with into hell. It seems to be literal not figural – he went to wherever the dead go whatever that is – Sheol, the underworld etc. It speaks to a three story universe. When I understood as you have done that the descent is into the hell we have created then I began to appreciate the apocalypse of the cross. When I then understood the ascension to be the completion of and acceptance of his offering (I learned this from translating the psalms and that the Hebrew of ‘burnt offering’ is the same word as ‘ascent’) then I knew I was no longer in the three story universe of my childish beliefs.

  2. The descent to the dead took on a new level of meaning for me when I discovered the late Denise Levertov’s poem “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell”. If you don’t know it, I urge you to find the poem on line.

    1. Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell
      by Denise Levertov

      Down through the tomb’s inward arch
      He has shouldered out into Limbo
      to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
      the merciful dead, the prophets,
      the innocents just His own age and those
      unnumbered others waiting here
      unaware, in an endless void He is ending
      now, stooping to tug at their hands,
      to pull them from their sarcophagi,
      dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
      neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
      still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
      no one had washed and anointed, is here,
      for sequence is not known in Limbo;
      the promise, given from cross to cross
      at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
      All these He will swiftly lead
      to the Paradise road: they are safe.
      That done, there must take place that struggle
      no human presumes to picture:
      living, dying, descending to rescue the just
      from shadow, were lesser travails
      than this: to break
      through earth and stone of the faithless world
      back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
      stifling shroud; to break from them
      back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
      the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
      wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
      streaming through every cell of flesh
      so that if mortal sight could bear
      to perceive it, it would be seen
      His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
      and aching for home. He must return,
      first, in Divine patience, and know
      hunger again, and give
      to humble friends the joy
      of giving Him food–fish and a honeycomb.

  3. It is interesting that you mention The da Vinci code, which, though it is a work of fiction, many people seem to regard as a true historical account.

    Related to this is the idea, which you can find all over the Internet without too much searching, that Christians stole things like Easter, Christmas and Halloween from pagans.

    The evidence for this “stealing” is pretty tenuous, and, in the case of Halloween, it is is the other way tound — pagans stole it from Christians.

    There is one thing, however, that Christians certainly and incontrovertibly borrowed from pagans, and that is Hell.

    Yet Hell is hardly ever mentioned as being among the things the Christians allegedly borrowed (or “stole”) from pagans.

    If you’re interested, there’s more on that here Go to Hell! | Khanya

  4. There is imagery from the psalms that is used of Hell.

    The opening psalms (e.g. Ps 21) place some emphasis on fire and brimstone as punishment for ‘the enemies’.

    you will set them as a fiery oven
    of the time of your presence
    יהוה in his anger will swallow them
    and fire will devour them

    Yet, speaking personally and subjectively, the Psalter draws me away from the traditional objectivized view of Hell. The traditional imagery for Hell is drawn in part from such psalms, but traditional Hell over-determines their intent. Jesus (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:5) tells his disciples to fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell, and this fear has been transposed in our traditions to a fear of judgment after death or fear of an apocalyptic day of wrath (Dies Irae). The psalms speak to me about a present fear that knows the reality of psalms like 6 and 38, where the wrath being known now is faced.
    Then, as John 5:24 explains, we are past the judgment. The wrath endures but a moment (Psalm 30:6).

    But the ‘wrath’ is real – see Psalm 6, 38 as is Jesus’ act of entering into our shame.

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