Descending to the Underworld

Harrowing of Hell.

One idea surrounding the crucifixion narrative which is often overlooked is a statement we find in the Apostles Creed, which reads ‘he was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; (or to the dead) and on the third day he rose again.’ What’s up with this curious ‘he descended into hell’ statement? And what, if anything, should we make of it? That is this morning’s topic. It’s one of those ideas that even in the Christian world there is a lot of disagreement over. In more liturgical traditions, amongst liturgical Anglicanism or within Roman Catholicism, it is affirmed in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. But amongst so called ‘Bible based Christians’, your Baptists, Calvinists, Evangelicals, etc., they tend to reject this idea, because it is not explicitly affirmed in the Bible. Certainly, that statement ‘he descended into hell’, is not in the Bible. This doctrine arose in response to a problem the early church faced. And most people who come out of more conservative forms of Christianity towards a more liberal religious expression of their faith, also often hit upon this problem at some point during their journey. I certainly did, once upon a time. The problem can be thought of like this: Axiom one - God is perfectly loving, just, and desires all to be saved. Two - in the mainstream Christian conception of salvation, you can only be saved through accepting Christ yourself, as an individual. Accept him into your heart or profess him to be your Lord and Saviour, and then get baptised. Three (and this is where the problem arises) - what about those who have died having not heard about Jesus? We could imagine this happening today to far flung people, out there somewhere, never encountering the “Gospel”. But then, even more so - if you think about Medieval times, this is evidently the case. Here we are in Europe with Jesus, and there they are, all the Aztecs, and Native Americans, living over there with no knowledge of the Gospel. Or, even more problematically, what about all those countless individuals who lived and died before Jesus even existed. They obviously cannot profess a faith in Jesus.

Aztec mask.

Christian Theology has attempted several fixes to these problems over the last two centuries. ‘He descended into hell’. The doctrine known as the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ is one such fix to one aspect of that problem, i.e. all those who died before Jesus, that between Jesus’ death and resurrection he went to hell and gave everyone there the opportunity to accept his salvation. This whole topic, however, has a lot of complicating factors. First of all, there is no uniform conception of hell in the Bible; the Old Testament conception of the underworld is very different to the Gehenna view of hell alluded to in the New Testament. Also, at this time in the first and second centuries, the Greek understanding of Hades was rubbing up against the Christian and Jewish conception of hell. So, the sands are constantly shifting; the nature of the problem is not static. The ‘Harrowing of Hell’ solution is alluded to a few times in the Bible. Paul, for example, says, ‘When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ But the most pronounced reference is in the First Letter of Peter, which reads ‘…in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.’  The idea then, is that everyone prior to Jesus, whether they were God-fearing or not, were trapped in the underworld until Jesus came to spring them out. Also, by alluding to Noah and the ark here, Peter is also reconciling his own conception of a just and loving God, with that God who decided to flood and kill everyone in the Book of Genesis. He’s saying that this is when they got their second chance, which is lucky. I was worried about them for a moment there…

Jonah and the Whale.

Note how similar the story of Jonah (Jonah 1, 2) and the large fish (or the whale as it’s sometimes translated) is to this story of Jesus descending into hell. As Jesus goes down into the bowels of the earth, so, Jonah is trapped in the darkness of the whale. It even says he was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. That’s not a coincidence. That’s another example of the New Testament echoing something already present in the Old Testament. Jesus says as much in Matthew; just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. So, obviously, I don’t believe either of these stories happened literally, they are both mythological stories. Jesus dies and goes to the underworld, Jonah tries to get away from God’s calling upon his life, and is swallowed by a fish. What does that fish represent? To Bronze Age people the sea was a terrifying force, an unpredictable menace which concealed mysterious monsters that lurked beneath its surface. Rumours of monsters coming up from the deep and destroying boats were common place. The Leviathan – primal forces of wrath and destruction – that could pluck the unexpecting person out of life. Later Jewish sources even go so far as to use the word Dragon. So, Jonah is consumed by the Dragon of the deep. He does battle with the Dragon. Not a physical battle, but a battle of the soul.

'Orpheus in the Underworld' by William Blake.

We heard a shortened version of the prayer Jonah says while in the sea monster. It really goes through all the stages of an emotional battle someone may go through with any calamity in their lives. He says he is in distress. That he is cast into the deep. That he has been driven away from the sacred. He feels cut off, and lost. The weeds wrap around his head. He is consumed by darkness. But then he begins to remember – I have been in dark places before, and I have come out. He begins to look towards God, look towards his purpose, what it is in this world which gives him purpose and meaning. He thanks God for the life he has been given, at which point he is spewed out upon the dry land. And what happens when we do battle with dragons? We get the pot of gold. We rescue the maiden in distress. We get the pearl of great price! Or we’re spewed out upon the dry land. So, we can think of it this way, an interior battle in which we’re engulfed by uncertainty; we don’t know what we should do, or what is right. This worry, this concern, this interior chaos, is often symbolised by this encounter with the monster, with the Dragon, with the Monster deep down in the sea. What do we say when we feel bad? That we feel down. So, to put it another way, when you are down, when things are terrible in your life, you go to the mythological underworld. Of course, there is no such place as Hell - a sulfuric physical place beneath the earth. But there is a hell, and it’s on earth, and people are in it every day. And you can hear them scream, and you can see their anguish if you look and listen.

The mythological underworld is where you go to when things fall apart. It’s interesting to take that idea and think about it in the context of the famous horror novel, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. This book was a big deal when it came out in the 1880s, particularly within churches. It was one of those books that a lot of preachers actually talked about from their pulpits. There was a sermon on it soon after its release at St Paul’s Cathedral, for example. Obviously, it resonated with people, because it addresses many of the issues Victorian England was interested in - the struggle between Good and Evil, the idea that dreams are able to tell us something of significance, and, the need to repress our own darker nature. For anyone unfamiliar with Jekyll and Hyde, the basic story is that Dr. Jekyll invents a potion which separates his good and bad natures; he takes this elixir and his evil persona within, his ‘Hyde’, is released and causes havoc upon London. The implication is that we all have Hydes within us. We may have deluded ourselves into believing we are nice/good people, but if our shadow side was truly able to express itself, as it does in this novella, we would be as shocked as the people in London. This is perhaps a problem, generally speaking, within religion. That through religion, we can convince ourselves that we are on the side of the good, we are champions of the good, which in turn blinds us to our shadow sides, the darkness which is truly within us.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 film).

Everything is going very well, everything is very organised in our lives, progressing as it should, and then something comes upon us and - bang - some aspect of our world, the people and things through which we find our identity perhaps, are suddenly gone. Or some other axiom of our lives crumbles away, and we are cast into darkness. Physically we’re not in a different place of course, but like Jekyll we find ourselves in a dark place. Like Jonah, we are swallowed by the dragon. Like Jesus we go down into the underworld. And then you face that shadow head on which is the shadow within, and you find resolve to do your duty, or find hope in the darkness, or God even, a sense of the sacred within the Nihilistic abyss. And you are reborn. In the Jesus Myth, actually reborn (however you want to conceptualise that), within Jonah, spewed out upon the dry land, and in Jekyll’s case he dies, but it’s a death of release. He is released from the horror of Hyde, whom he is unable to escape. He finds peace. In other words, Jesus in the Harrowing of Hell is serving as an example to us, an exemplar of the kind of process we all go through. There is something wrong in our presumptions, and in the way the world is responding to us. They’re rubbing up against each other. They’re jarring. The way we are, habitually, is snagging upon, or knocking up upon, the way the world is. It’s often much easier to see this in other people. They keep responding in that way, and each time things go badly for them, can’t they see? maybe they should think about responding in a different way. And so, this jarring brings us to a dark place; we descend as it were into the underworld, because some aspect of who we think we are doesn’t sit well within our universe, and that is distressing.

Ideally then, within this underworld, we are able examine our own demons, our own presumptions which are not serving us well. The coping mechanism which served us once, which now don’t serve us so well. We examine them, we identify them, we drop them, and we’re reborn. We come out of the underworld reformed and renewed. And this happens again and again. We are constantly dying and being reborn, and it’s that part of us that is reborn which is enduring, which death cannot contain. Because Love conquers death. And so, in conclusion, you wouldn’t catch me affirming the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Because I would need to footnote every word, and explain in my own way, in what symbolic sense I am willing to agree. I would need to footnote ‘he was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; And on the third day he rose again.’ Into that footnote I would paste this entire address, and then I would be happy to say…