THE HARROWING OF HELL
As far as I know, members of the Church of England are still theoretically supposed to assent to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion as printed at the back of the old Book of Common Prayer, even though in practice many people do not know of their existence, and few of those who do have ever read them. This is not surprising, for by modern standards their language is archaic, their subject matter is abstruse, and some of their injunctions are difficult to justify. For instance, the Thirty-fifth Article refers to two books of ‘Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth’ and which should, we are advised, ' be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people’ - advice which is unlikely to commend itself to many clergy today as a sure-fire way of packing their churches with crowds of fascinated and excited converts to the Christian faith. Even so, it would be a pity to conclude that all the articles are as bizarre as that, for many of them raise subjects of great profundity, which have exercised thinking men for centuries, while others at least have the merit of reminding us of problems, which we would much rather forget or ignore. For instance, high on the list, the third Article makes the uncompromising assertion that ‘As Christ died for us and was buried, so also it to be believed, that he went down into Hell,’ and what are we to make of that?
We cannot just brush it under the carpet and forget it, unless we are prepared to abandon the Apostles’ Creed, where it is said that Jesus…..‘was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead….’ and so on. Since the Creeds are the bare bones of Christian belief, succinct to the point of being skeletal, we can be sure that only those things, which seemed in their authors to be the bare essentials of belief and thus of the highest importance, were included in the finished product. This presents us with a problem for while we may find the whole idea of Hell as an underground torture chamber, where the spirits of the dead suffer to all eternity, both repugnant and unbelievable, we should be wary of assuming that beliefs held by millions of ordinary, intelligent, faithful members of the human race for centuries, if not for millennia, were empty of all significance - a load of rubbish. the re-discovery by such men as Jung in our own century of the profundity and significance of such ancient mythology, which was written off as obvious nonsense by many people in the nineteenth century, has provided us with an example of how dangerous and impoverishing such arrogant and mistaken self-assurance can be; a lesson which it would be foolish to ignore.
So where do we go from there? Curiously enough, to Istanbul - or rather to Constantinople - where the Eastern Orthodox Church flourished for over a thousand years until the city was conquered by the Turks in A.D. 1453; for there and throughout the Eastern Orthodox world the significance of Christ’s descent into hell and his sojourn among the dead was - and still is - given great prominence. As ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ it was even given dramatic shape and visible form by Byzantine artists in mosaics, frescos and icons. Many early Byzantine works were destroyed by the Turks, when they conquered Constantinople in 1453, while others were covered up, as the churches, whose walls they decorated, were turned into Moques; but some of these have recently been uncovered again and restored to something like their former glory.
To give one example only, a small church, known originally as the Church of Our Saviour Christ in Chora and decorated in the early fourteenth century with some splendid mosaics and frescos, is a case in point. There, in a side chapel, there is a magnificent rendering of the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ is depicted astride the rocky mouth of Hell, grasping Adam with one hand and Eve with the other, pulling them free from the place of the dead into life again. They are portrayed as an old man and an old woman, and in other mosaics and icons of the same subject, patriarchs, prophets, and kings - Abraham and Isaac; Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah; King Saul and King David - line up behind Adam and Eve to await their turn to be redeemed by Christ, the New Adam and Son of God.
It is a marvellous vision. Almost everyone would agree with that. But many would immediately go on to ask whether it was not a near-perfect example of the kind of mythical belief which is totally unacceptable today. After all, no one in his or her right mind believes any more in a subterranean chamber, where the spirits of the long-dead moulder in eternal obscurity and utter hopelessness. Apart from the fact that it is geologically incredible, it paints a picture of God as sitting up aloft in heaven - to continue to use picture language as though it was descriptive of material reality - contentedly leaving the souls of the millions and millions of men and women, who through no fault of their own had had the misfortune to live and die before the time of Christ, to rot in darkness to all eternity. of course, no one today believes in such a picture of God, and it was precisely because no one believed in such a picture, when the first Christians were struggling to think of the consequences of the revolution that had been wrought by Christ in their ideas of life and death, love and judgement, redemption, and resurrection that they came up with the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell.
Their difficulty was to reconcile such statements as “No man comes to the Father but by me”, attributed to Jesus by the author of the Fourth Gospel, with their conviction, based on the rest of Jesus’s teaching and actions, that God could not possibly behave in such a manner; yet millions of people had indeed died before Christ had appeared on earth, so what had happened to them? They found the answer to their problem in some visionary words in the First Epistle of St Peter, in which the author - whoever he may have been - said that ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous and the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey.’ There they were in Holy Scripture, the magic words - ‘he went to preach to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey’ and they could consign the spirits of the long dead in Sheol, as the Jews called the shadowy realm of the departed, to the love and power of God, which they themselves had known in Christ; for in the time between his death and his resurrection he had offered them the same salvation.
But to return to the question ‘Is it not a perfect example of the kind of mythical belief, which is unacceptable today?’ If the description of Christ, after death, going down to a subterranean Hell in order to preach to the spirits of a few billion long-dead men and women, is taken literally as being the description of a physical journey, on a par with a description of a man going to Paris for the weekend to see Notre Dame and the Louvre, of course it is unacceptable. But that fresco of the Harrowing of Hell in the little fourteenth century Church in what used to be Constantinople is no realistic landscape, any more than any of the hundreds of Icons of the same subject scattered throughout the Eastern Orthodox world is a realistic landscape. However, that does not mean that what it portrays is unreal and thus unacceptable; for it is a vision of the fullness of the love of God for all mankind and of the universality of Christ’s triumph over death; and if these are unreal we might as well pack up and throw Christianity on to the rubbish heap of history with all mankind’s other worn out faiths and fond but false beliefs. But they are not unreal, and far from throwing them away or finding their portrayal, whether in frescos or Icons or any other means, magnificent but unacceptable, we should thank God for the truths they embody.