In the Fall issue of the Center for Theology, our featured article this season focuses on Article 3, of the 39 Articles, On the Going Down of Christ Into Hell, written by Joe Merrill.
The Harrowing of Hell, or the ancient doctrine on Jesus Christ’s descent into hell, is one of those enigmatic doctrines passed down to the modern church by the ancients. In a Jewish and early Christian world in which the afterlife was indeterminate and undefined, where all who passed into death were stashed away in Sheol or Gehenna, the doctrine of Christ’s descent was a succor on the souls of those who despaired for the just and the righteous who perished before Christ’s coming. While the way of salvation was finally opened upon the coming of the Messiah, what about those who perished before his coming? Would they not get a chance? The Harrowing of Hell, where Christ descended to preach his message and bring the righteous out of Sheol and Gehenna, addressed these questions to the ancients’ satisfaction.
But on this side of history, where we have lived with a very different conception of the afterlife for hundreds of years, what does the Harrowing of Hell offer us? Today, Christ’s descent into hell can devolve into mere sentiment, a simple Sunday School answer that quickly answers the question about the eternal security of Moses, David, or Jeremiah. “King David died before Christ came…but shouldn’t he get to go to Heaven?” “Yes, yes, of course! You see, Christ descended into hell and brought all the righteous people out. Now let’s move on!”
But the Harrowing of Hell offers us something profoundly applicable to both those inside and outside the church today. Christ’s descent into hell demonstrates Jesus’ power over evil, darkness, and emptiness. As the Catholic Catechism explains, “By the expression ‘He descended into Hell’, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil ‘who has the power of death’.” Or, as Joe Merrill explains more fully in his essay on Article 3, Of the Going Down of Christ Into Hell, the Harowing of Hell allows us to say “We are not alone. Precisely in our moment of greatest sin, or in suffering the abandonment experienced through loss or even in the bitter feeling of emptiness that can accompany unbelief… we are not alone. No matter how far we sink, no matter how dark the night, Christ is always at the bottom. Indeed, the darkness is where Christ is found.”
The doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell is confessed and preached in our churches today because we live in a hellish world subject to sin, death, and evil. If Christ can descend into hell to rescue the righteous and defeat the power of death and Satan, then he can descend into our personal and corporate hells in this present darkness to defeat those powers which chain us to sin, death, and evil in order to bring us into communion with God in heaven.
Please take some time to read Joe’s essay on Article 3 to learn more on the ways in which Christ rescues us from hell.
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