The Harrowing of Hell and the filling of silence

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed two particular trends at Easter and I suspect they are linked. The first, that seemed to start earlier was that some Christians began to start making a bigger deal of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Comments include that we shouldn’t be in a rush to get from Good Friday to Easter, from Cross to Empty Tomb.  It’s been suggested that those in a hurry to get to Sunday are those who love certainty (you guessed it, that’s conservative and charismatic evangelicals) whereas, taking time to reflect on Saturday is a way of embracing uncertainty, just as those early disciples and women would have lived with uncertainty between Friday and Sunday.

There are a couple of problems with that kind of thinking.  First, no matter how hard we might try to blank it out, we have this thing called hindsight.  We do know what happens.  We don’t wake up on Easter Sunday surprised by how things turn out.  This is not like the moment when I got Aslan’s death in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and was made to put the book down and switch my light off by mum having to wait the night with Lucy and Susan to find out what would happen at dawn. 

Secondly, I see that some have suggested we can infer how the disciples would have been feeling through Saturday and so we can join with their emotions.  The thing is that we don’t need to infer, we are told pretty explicitly what happened to them on Friday and their state of mind on Sunday.  The thing is that they were not embracing uncertainty.  They were devastated, defeated, despairing.  Is that something we should be embracing with them?

If that reflects speculation about what was happening to the disciples and women, the concept of The Harrowing of Hell is an attempt to speculate about what happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  The phrase refers to a belief that in some way or other, Jesus didn’t just die but spent the time between death and resurrection in Hell.  When he rose again, he led a break out from there so that faithful people from the Old Testament were set free and taken to Heaven with him.

This theology has been developed out of a short phrase in some versions of the Creeds “He descended to Hell” and these words from 1 Peter 3:18-20 which says:

18 For Christ also suffered[b] once for sins, 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, 19 in which[c] he went and proclaimed[d] to the spirits in prison, 20 because[e] they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 

The Creed doesn’t give us much detail. It’s assumed by some that the phrase is based on 1 Peter 3 though, it is as likely to be a reference to “Hades” as synonymous with the grave rather than Hell as the place of judgement which we think of today. 

As regards the verses in 1 Peter, these have been much debated and a few potential interpretations put forward.  It is worth noting that there are a few problems with the idea that this was a harrowing of Hell or Hades to set the faithful free.  First, that the syntax suggests that the preaching was “in the Spirit” and if aligned temporally to the events of Easter weekend, links most with the moment of his resurrection rather than the time after his death and before his resurrection. If anything it’s an Easter Sunday thing not an Easter Saturday moment. 

Secondly, think of the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  When the rich man is suffering in Hell, Lazarus is not with him, even in a different compartment of some underworld.  Rather, he is with Abraham and with God, in paradise.  It’s worth remembering too, that Jesus, on the Cross doesn’t tell the thief “Just wait until Sunday.”  He says “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”  It doesn’t seem that Jesus was planning a detour.  The people preached to by Jesus, whoever they were, were not the faithful but those who were disobedient and in fact, the focus is on a particular moment in history, they were the spirits who disobeyed during the time of Noah.  Peter’s purpose in mentioning them, was not to get us fixated on Easter Saturday but rather to direct us to the link between the ark and baptism.

Whatever 1 Peter is talking about (and I engage with that a little more here), it doesn’t look to me to have anything to do with a so called “harrowing of hell.” This is important because out of this speculation have come some deeply unhelpful ideas.  First, there has been the attempt to create a post-mortem, second chance opportunity for people who reject the Gospel in this life to hear it again.  This gives false hope to the complacent.  Secondly, there has been an idea floating around, particularly in prosperity gospel circles that Christ’s physical suffering and death on the Cross were not enough.  That achieved a certain level of atonement but to truly benefit from him, we needed him to experience a form of spiritual suffering in Hell in order to full unlock all the benefits and prosperity available to us.  This seriously diminishes the words of Jesus when he said “It is finished.” Both ideas are without Scriptural warrant.

What we are seeing, both with the speculation about the women and the disciples emotions on Saturday and about what Jesus did whilst his body was in the grave, is really about our need to feel time and silence.  The Gospels and indeed, the whole New Testament by contrast keep us focused on two things, that Jesus died for our sins (Friday) and rose four our justification (Sunday).   That’s what we need to know and we don’t need to be speculating about things that the New Testament isn’t particularly concerned about.

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