For Christ also died for sins once for all, 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; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited 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
The Harrowing of Hell
Since today is Holy Saturday, the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I thought it would be good to write some reflections on this day which has traditionally been commemorated as the “Harrowing of Hell”.
In the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, after Christ gave up his Spirit, he descended to the dead, stormed the gates of Hades and liberated the captives of Death, beginning with Adam and all the Old Testament patriarchs. This is the outworking of the victory of Christ whereby he brings the life-saving words of the Gospel down to the very lowest depths of Satan’s domain and Death’s power and “preached to the spirits in prison”, proclaiming deliverance from Satan’s and Death powers and leading them to freedom from their (literal!) death grip.
The implications of this of course is that there is simply absolutely nowhere where Christ’s life and victory not present, nowhere where Christ’s saving power is absent. Christ himself has descended into sin’s greatest power, death and Hades itself, and set the captives free and brought them into his glorious life and light, could there possibly be any event on earth which is beyond Christ’s redemption? Any event so dark, so evil, so terrible, that is beyond Christ’s saving presence? He has descended into the very heart of sin itself, the heart of darkness, to use Joseph Conrad’s term. Hades and death is not beyond his power, beyond his presence, nowhere is beyond him. To put it crudely, Christ been there, done that.
Hades, Death and Judgement
There has been some conceptual confusion with regards to Hades which rarely has been clarified in Protestant and Evangelical circles. In the Hebrew, the word “Sheol” and in the Greek, “Hades”, has been used to refer to “the place of the dead”. It is technically not “Hell”, if by “Hell” we mean the place of everlasting damnation.
We have to remember that the sentence to “Hell” or the everlasting fires only occurs at the Last Judgement, at the consumation of all things. This is a little difficult to understand because we cannot help but think of “Hades”, “Heaven and Hell” as space-time events or locations, and attempt to square them with our essentially linear temporal world. Here is an analogy which might help.
When we do our mathematical proofs, we reason step by step, from this equation to the next equation to the next. This is essentially a sequence of deductions. But this is not a temporal sequence of deductions. No “time” has elapsed from one deduction to another, although time has elapsed in ouri n time understanding of the flow of deductions, but the deduction itself is “timeless”. It is essentially an atemporal sequence of deductions which doesn’t take any “time”, the sequence of deduction is eternally what it is.
Thus, we must think of the relationship between “Hades”, “Judgement”, “Heaven and Hell” this way too. There is the space-time world, our world, of flowing events in historic time. But “Hades”, “Judgement”, “Heaven and Hell” are out of time entities. They are more like different states which people “enter” into once they depart from our space-time temporal world into these “eternal” realms, “eternal” meaning atemporal or outside of time realm.
In the Old Testament, “Hades” or “Sheol” is simply the “place” of the dead. Of course it isn’t a literal physical location, it is more like the state of a person. As the Lutheran theologian Peter Burfeind puts it,
…Sheol is revealed in the Old Testament with more nuance than the wooden translation “hell” would indicate. Far from being the place of final, fiery, and eternal punishment traditionally assigned to hell, Sheol must be seen as a place flexible enough to embrace meanings such as pit, grave, punishment, sorrow, guilt, and even depression. In other words, it is the place where sin, death, and the power of the devil reign supreme.
Jacob repeatedly mentions Sheol as the destination for his “gray hair” (Gn 37:35; 42:38; 44:29–31). Solomon speaks without qualification when he writes, “Whatever your hand hands to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in [Sheol] where you are going” (Eccl 9:10). Job even identified Sheol as a place of repose from his sufferings (Job 14:13). Of course, the psalmist and prophets anticipate the curse of Sheol also for the wicked, even if in several contexts it is not so much punishments in Sheol which are anticipated, but death itself which will bring to naught the self-aggrandizing plans of the wicked (Ps 9:17; 55:15; Is 5:14; 14:9; and others). Yet, in the end the effects of the fall and its curse are upon all people.
The difference between the righteous and the wicked is not so much of place, as it is of hope. The righteous, while going to Sheol, hope for a restoration to life. The psalmist demonstrates this truth poignantly when he writes of this restoration as a “morning”:
“This is the way of those who are foolish,
And of their posterity who approve their sayings.
Like sheep they are laid in [Sheol];
Death shall feed on them;
The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning;
And their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling.
But God will redeem my soul from the power of [Sheol], For he shall receive me. (Ps 49:13–15)
Thus, Hades or Sheol is the state of man whereby Sin and Satan’s power has overcome and have dominion over him. In other words, it is the state of man who has died and fallen into sin and death’s power. So when it is said that “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes the Judgement”, this is not a statement of linear temporality, as if in the next “split second” or “instant”, a person from death “immediately” goes to the Judgement according to our linear time. We’re dealing with atemporal entities and events here. Thus, it simply speaks of an ordering of events, not the amount of “time” it takes to go from one event to another. Thus, we die first, thereby entering into the state of Hades or Sheol, and from that state we go to the Last Judgement. As we can see in Revelations 20:11-13,
Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done.
Thus, at the Last Judgement, the dead will leave Death and Hades and enter into God’s judgement. This event occurs at the final consummation, at the end of time itself.
Preaching to the Dead
Thus, given the fact that all of us live in actual linear time, therefore all the persons who have died,from our temporal perspective, are still in the region of “Hades” or the Dead, and from our perspective, the return of Christ in glory, the General Resurrection, the Last Judgement and Final Consummation has not occurred. It cannot be emphasized enough that for the dead themselves, they are essentially in an atemporal region, they would not experience time or the flow of events as we do, thus, it is not as if they are feeling every moment or second in Hades after they die in the same way as we are experience time in this world.
Therefore we must likewise understand the concept of the “preaching to the dead” by Christ. It is not a “one-time” event, occurring two thousand years ago when Christ died. It is an “eternal” event. The preaching of the Gospel to the dead reverberates for all time until the Death and Hades itself are “thrown in the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14) at the Last Judgement. Thus, the dead who depart from our temporal world into Hades will hear that single thunder of Christ’s preaching and command of liberation which continues to resound until the end of time, and hearing those words of life and receiving it, they shall be resurrected unto everlasting life. As the contemporary Russian Orthodox theologian, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, explores all this in his recent book, Christ the Conqueror of Hell (2009),
Christ’s saving of the dead and the exodus from Hades were not one-time events that occurred in the past without significance for the present. These are events that transcend time, whose fruits were reaped not only by those who were imprisoned in hell before Christ’s descent but also by future generations.
This is why in 1 Peter 4:6 it speaks of “why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.” Some church fathers even postulated that after the apostle’s death they are sent into Hades to continue preaching the Gospel there to the dead!
Hope for the Dead
The importance and significance of Christ’s descend into hell has vast implications, as a Barthian theologian puts it,
…it means that even hell itself is no longer a place of separation from God. Christ has penetrated into the depths of hell, flooding its darkness with the light of love. Hell has become a site of divine activity, a venue of divine love. ‘If I make my bed in Hades, you are there’ (Psalm 139:8).
Thus, as Christ broke the power of Hades and Death and overcome it with his divine presence, so likewise we on earth should take heart and never despair for those who have died, especially for those who have died without faith. For their deaths most certainly do not put them beyond and outside the power of Christ, who came precisely to overcome the power of death! Their death are not beyond hope, it is not some kind of finishing line which puts them outside the power of Christ. No, the Harrowing of Hell precisely demonstrates that the dead are not outside the salvic power of Christ, that his preaching there has overcomes death itself. As St Paul declares confidently in Romans 8:38-39,
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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.
Christ’s love for mankind cannot be separated by death. It is not as if the person who has died without faith is forever beyond Christ’s love and however separated from Christ’s love. Death cannot separate us from Christ’s love, only persistent and perpetual unbelief.
Conclusion: Prayers for the Dead
Therefore even as we reflect on the significance of the Harrowing of Hell, let us take heart in this glorious victory of Christ over the dead, and let us hope in Christ’s love for all mankind, and the power of his preached Gospel to the dead, and in that faith, let us offer up prayers for those who have died, that truly the preaching of Christ’s Gospel shall raise them from the dead and liberate them from Hades, into the glorious presence of God our Father, whose love has appeared in his Son Jesus Christ, who has conquered Hades itself. And therefore, in that light, I put forward the following prayer for the dead, taken from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:
We commend unto thy mercy, O Lord, all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us, with the sign of faith, and now do rest in the sleep of peace: Grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, that at the day of the general resurrection, we and all they which be of the mystical body of thy Son, may altogether be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: Come unto me, O ye that be blessed of my father, and possess the kingdom, which is prepared for you from the beginning of the world: Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only mediator and advocate.