Lesson 7: Descended into Hell

Harrowing of HellA close examination of this phrase can help us gain some perspective on what is involved in using a 2000 year-old creed. When I was young, I thought it meant I had to believe in hell. That made me uncomfortable in high school when I heard evangelists like Billy Graham base their ministry on the threat of eternal punishment rather than the promise of the Gospel.

In college, I tried to see what scholars thought, only to find the good ones admitted they were not sure what the phrase originally meant. Some thought it reinforces the fact that Jesus really died, finishing off the list “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried” with “descended into the place of the dead.” Others interpreted it as indicating Jesus pays for our sins by spending time in hell on our behalf. Finally, a third group saw it as the first redemptive act of the resurrected Christ that defeated Satan and empties hell.

The issue surfaced recently when the evangelist Rob Bell wrote he could no longer believe a loving God could ever leave people suffering through eternity. His words caused a tremendous furor among other evangelicals who insisted that he would again change his mind when he was thrown into hell for talking like that.

A similar reaction took place when mainline churches replaced “hell” with “the place of the dead” in a modern revision of the creed. Many believed this attempt to be accurate was just another example of the church accommodating to a modern society that ignores right and wrong.

This modern conflict goes back to lack of consensus about life after death that goes back to the very beginning. The Old Testament claims God’s promise of salvation is fulfilled in history. When people die, their shadows go to Sheol but this in no way could be described as life. The New Testament offers a variety of theories all based on different understandings of the Last Judgment that purges the creation of evil. Some include evil people simply dying a second death, some picture them being thrown away as garbage, and others could be read consigning them to eternal punishment. All of these are secondary to the Last Judgment being a fulfillment of God’s promise to save his creation and an invitation for our working with him. All are attempts to acknowledge we have responsibility for our actions without diminishing God’s grace compensating for sin.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has never been so obsessed with hell. They capture Jesus first redemptive action in their resurrection icon, the “Harrowing of Hell,” pictured above. This ancient icon pictures Jesus standing on the gate of hell that he has battered down. Satan is crushed under the gate while Jesus pulls people from their imprisonment. The idea is built on I Peter 3: 18-20.

We do well to give some thought to this teaching, because it raises issues largely ignored by our Western Church. We have contented ourselves with speculating about whether there is some kind of hell and what it must be like. Some have insisted we need a hell, because the evil of some people is beyond redemption. Others try to have it both ways, claiming we have to believe there is a hell but do not have to believe there is anyone in it.

The Eastern Orthodox certainly offer a more consistent proclamation of the Gospel based on promise instead of threat. Their Harrowing of Hell teaching fits into the last phrases of the second article that we examine next week.

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