The traditional rendering of the Apostles’ Creed has a very strange-sounding line in it.
Speaking of Jesus, it says that He “was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” It goes on to speak of the resurrection, but in between these lines it says “He descended into hell.”
What could this possibly mean? How could Jesus “descend into hell?” And what did He do while He was there?
Traditionally, the church has understood this to mean that after His death on the cross, Jesus went into the underworld and proclaimed the message of salvation to those who had died before His birth. This belief has been called “the harrowing of hell.”
There are a couple of Scriptures that may allude to such a harrowing, both in the first letter of Peter:
“He (Jesus) was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit,” Saint Peter tells us, “in which He went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey” (1 Peter 3:18-19).
Peter goes on to tell us that “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).
While these verses can be interpreted in a number of ways, they seem to say that in some way, Jesus offered redemption to people beyond the grave.
Traditionally, the church has limited this offer to those who died before Christ’s coming; but some have dared to extend these verses quite a bit further.
The Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, for example, says that “hell is a point not in space but in the soul. It is the point where God is not. (And yet God is everywhere!) If Christ truly ‘descended into hell,’ that means He descended into the depths of the absence of God. Totally, unreservedly, He identifies Himself with all of man’s anguish and alienation. He assumed it into Himself, and by assuming it He healed it. There was no other way He could heal it, except by making it His own” (The Orthodox Way, 80).
If Ware is correct (and I suspect he is), then we don’t need to worry about those who died without hearing the gospel. Everyone eventually hears the truth, whether in this life or beyond, and has a chance to respond to it.
Ware’s point about Jesus “assuming” our alienation is also a good one.
“The Son of God was revealed for this purpose,” Saint John tells us, “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). And the main “work” of the devil is precisely this – creating alienation between people and God, and between one person and another.
Much artwork and devotional material has been devoted to Jesus’ physical suffering – both before and during His crucifixion. But it’s important to remember that Jesus’ suffering had a spiritual element to it as well.
This is how Jesus destroyed the work of the devil – by allowing Satan to crush Him spiritually!
Just as Jesus absorbed all the evil on the physical plane by dying on the cross, He also absorbed all of the spiritual evil by “descending into hell.” But neither death nor hell could hold Him, and in this we rejoice.
Furthermore, the harrowing of hell isn’t a one-time deal. Jesus continues to go into whatever hells He finds, drawing people out of them.
“It was not once long ago that He did it,” C.S. Lewis writes of the harrowing of hell. “Time does not work that way once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach” (The Great Divorce, 139-140).
This is great news indeed! If Jesus has preached to all the spirits in prison, this means that everyone will hear the gospel and have the chance to respond to it.
Whatever hells we may find ourselves in, whether in this life or another, Jesus is there waiting for us – and He has the power to pull us out.
Hell’s days are numbered. Indeed, the only thing that keeps us there is our refusal to accept God’s love – and we may genuinely hope this love will one day prove irresistible.