The Harrowing of Hell

I start this sermon with great trepidation. I believe like Bishop Gene Robinson says, “It’s funny isn’t it? That you can preach a judgmental and vengeful and angry God, and nobody will mind. But you start preaching a God that is too accepting, too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too kind… and you are in trouble.”[1]

What has been preached from this pulpit for my five years has always been honest, and I’m open to dialogue. So here we go.

I walked into a Christian bookstore in late spring of 2011. One of my favorite authors had just released a book, and I was hoping to grab it as I had many of his other books from this particular store. I couldn’t find it. Nor could I find any of his other books. I asked at the front desk.

“Do you have Love Wins by Rob Bell?” The look I got. Then the teller recovered herself. “No, but we can order it for you.”

“Is there something wrong? I’m just looking for his new book.”

“Well, yes, frankly. Do you believe what he says in the book?” she asked.

“I don’t know what he says in the book as I am hoping to buy it here. What does he say?”

“He says that hell doesn’t exist! If there’s no hell, then there’s no need for Jesus!”

I was puzzled. I had no idea what was going on. Rob Bell, who planted a church in Grand Rapids, MI, grew it from nothing to 5,000. He wrote books and produced the NOOMA video series. He was thoughtful and approachable. He was the darling of the church world for a while.

After Love Wins was published there was a vicious backlash. The book’s full title includes “A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” The book states that some versions of Jesus should be rejected, especially those used to intimidate and inspire fear in people. Bell advises readers to reject the arm-chair style of religion that lazily believes everyone and everything outside of its circle gets thrown into hell if they don’t conform to every bullet point of belief.

Bell uses scriptures like the story of the prodigal son receiving a ring, robe, hug and party from his dad instead of a lecture. Bell also points out how many early Christians believe in a concept called “universalism.” This means that if God wants everyone saved and in heaven, then God gets what God wants. Love wins. But this was too much for some people. Apparently, heaven isn’t heaven without some people burning in hell for all time. Typically, the people who need a hell are the same ones convinced that they won’t be in it.

Universalism dates back all the way to the first century. Early theologians like Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa all talk about “apokatastasis.” It’s a Greek term meaning “restitution/restoration.” In this doctrine in the Orthodox church God gives us eternal second chances, and the hope is that there will come a time when evil will be fully defeated.

It’s also right in the Apostles Creed.

I was taught in my Catholic school religion class that the Apostles Creed was the first creed, and it came from each of the Twelve Apostles who contributed to the formation of this creed. We’re not sure about that though. It is first mentioned in the Synod of Milan dated 390 C.E. It was used in the Latin rite since the 8th century. The emperor Charlemagne loved it so much it became the official creed of the Holy Roman Empire.

The phrase descendit ad inferos, “he descended into hell” is not found in the Nicene Creed. It is a reference to Ephesians 4:9-10, “‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.” Which is a mysterious bit of text.

We know what Jesus did during Holy Week. He was teaching in and around Jerusalem. He was in the Upper Room on Thursday and then went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. He went on trial and was passed around from the religious authorities to Herod to Pilate and then was found guilty. He was beaten. Made to carry the cross. Was crucified between noon and three and died. He rose again on Easter Sunday. But what happened on Saturday? The early church held that Jesus went down and trashed hell. It was called The Harrowing of Hell which is referred to in not just the Apostles Creed but also the Athanasian Creed that interpreted 1 Peter 4:6, “Good tidings were proclaimed to the dead” to point to the harrowing of hell.[2]

Jesus went down to hell and brought salvation to the souls held captive since the beginning of time or when the devil took control of earth which is also not in the Bible explicitly. This doctrine was mentioned by many of the early church theologians as well as many noncanonical books that didn’t make it into the Bible.

Now many disagree with this idea. There’s nothing in the Gospels about this. Jesus was in the tomb, and the writers are silent as to what Jesus was doing at that time. Some Protestant Reformers state that the phrase “he descended into Hell” refers to Christ’s pain and humiliation prior to his death. That makes sense to me. We put Jesus through hell in that trial. Augustine argued that 1 Peter 3:19–20, the chief passage used to support the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell”, is “more allegory than history.” And there are some folks who are just flat out against it.[3] That’s fine and it is okay not to be sure of this doctrine either. I preach this so you know that the conversation happened, is robust, and is still happening. Don’t overlook church history and the conversation. It gets my goat that some theologians jump right over this part of the creed so they don’t have to talk about the conversation. Instead they act like that woman in the Christian bookstore defensively asking, “So you’re saying there’s no hell?!” No.

These early church theologians and supporters of universalism up to Rob Bell aren’t saying there isn’t a hell. They’re saying the good news is that Jesus defeated hell! Death itself has been defeated. They are not denying that there isn’t a judgment of God. Nor are they stating that there aren’t any ethics or rules of behavior or any of that.

For me, this doctrine helps keep me off my moral high horse. I can be a bit ethically rigid. I love to set high standards for myself and beat myself up when I don’t meet them. Maybe you do, too. Then we hold our neighbors up to our expectations and judge them when they don’t meet them without ever bothering to get to know their story and how they see the world. This way of life is exhausting. It costs a lot of friendships. It harms relationships within families. It’s a hard way to be in the world.

For me, universalism reminds me that God is in charge of salvation. I hope that God is more creative than I am. It is easy for me to judge people and then damn them to eternal torment. I never considered just how long eternity is. Maybe you haven’t either, let’s sing a song to remind us, “Infinity bottles of beer on the wall, infinity bottles of beer, take a billion down, pass them around, infinity bottles of beer on the wall.”

A compassionate God would see each of us as more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. A loving God then would not condemn us to infinite torment for our ignorant mortal mistakes. The math doesn’t add up. We only get 100 years or less to do our best to be like Christ to the world, and we’re guaranteed enteral hellfire for each mistake? Like how big of a mistake? Failing to recycle? Jaywalking? How good do we have to be, exactly? Also, we can’t earn our way to heaven with our good deeds, but we can earn our way to hell with our bad deeds? That game sounds rigged. It doesn’t sound like Jesus.

The Lord is our shepherd. He guides us in the right paths. Sometimes, being a stupid sheep, we wander off. But God has told us through Christ, that he will LEAVE the 99 and come find each one of us. And make us lie down in green pastures. Set a table before us, anoint our head with oil and our cup overflows. We are good enough for God. God’s faithfulness and grace are amazing! Certainly beyond what I would do, with my human tendency for petty revenge. I mean, if I knew I had one night to live, I’d throw a party and just go nuts. Jesus knew he had one night to live at the Last Supper, and what did he do? He washed his disciples’ feet, fed them, and commanded them to love. Then he spent the night in prayer in the garden until he was arrested. Simply divine. God’s ways are not my ways. I’m so thankful for that.

Last Sunday we spoke about the grace Jesus gave to Simon Peter. Peter who denied him three times by a charcoal fire is restored three times by a charcoal fire. The works Jesus did in God’s name are why I believe. The Good News of God’s grace and love are what Jesus taught and died for and came back and lived following his resurrection. It’s why I want to be part of the flock.

I want that for everyone. You. Me. Every nation, creed, every everything to know that they are loved here and at home in this world. The picture on the cover is a Chinese Christ comforting a disciple at the Last Supper. I find comfort in this depiction. This is what Jesus really did at that final meal with his friends. It has been a long road for me to accept that I’m accepted. Because I’m accepted by the source of life, then I want to spread that around. I want to act like Christ: welcome the outcast, protect the orphan and widow, and welcome the stranger for some have entertained angels unaware. I want to learn from each of your life stories so you and I can figure out what our still-speaking God is up to in our world and find Christ in each other.

I trust Jesus with all my heart, mind, and strength. I love the Lord’s Prayer, especially the part that says, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christians then are committed to more heaven, less hell. We are opposed to hell in any form. We pray that one day, there will be no one in hell. With God all things are possible and if God wants it, God will get it for God’s love is ultimately irresistible. If it’s not true, then God is not all powerful and we’re saying God can’t do something or that God can’t get what God wants. That Jesus’ death of the cross didn’t cover it. It wasn’t good enough.

I don’t think I can place that limit on God, Jesus’ life, teachings, and atonement on the cross. I like the idea that because of Jesus’ love for us, he descended into hell and wrecked the place. Or that in his love he suffered our humiliation and violence and returned it with love, forgiveness, and new life. God’s kingdom is built on the foundation of love. I believe it is as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Love is the most durable power in the world… Centuries ago Jesus started an empire that was built on love, and even to this day millions will die for him. Who can doubt the veracity of these words? The great military leaders of the past have gone, and their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes. But the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love, is still growing.”[4]

I have seen hells in my life. I’ve seen and experienced a little of the hell of poverty and how it’s a crime to be poor in this country. I’ve seen the hells of addiction, mental health, isolation, and the unfair judgment and dehumanization of whole groups of people. I’ve seen it, and I hate it. I want less of it in the world. I hope you do, too. I think Jesus does. I don’t need to have any faith in hell. I’m certain I’ve seen it. It is real. It exists. What I don’t see and need faith in is the power of love to get people out of hell. I’m surprised each time my faith is confirmed.

How people can rally around a sick, grieving, or lonely person and how cards, food, and phone calls brighten someone’s day. And hell is harrowed. I need faith in it because I don’t often see that in the headlines. I know how my snap judgments try to snatch people out of God’s hand and cast all the people I don’t like into hell. I don’t need faith in that, I see and live that every day. I need faith that, like our scripture says today, “nothing can snatch us out of the hands of our loving God.” I hope that God is not as petty as I am. I have faith in that. I would like to see the world one day as God does. I would like to believe that I will never look upon a face of a person whom God does not love. Here I stand and can do no other. Amen.

Bibliography

Richard Bauckham, Universalism: A historical survey. Accessed on May 2, 2022: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/universalism-a-historical-survey/

Rob Bell, LOVE WINS: A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived (Harper One, New York, NY; 2011)

Matthew Distefano, Indeed Very Many: Universalism in the Early Church. Posted April 10, 2017 and accessed May 2, 2022: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2017/04/indeed-many-universalism-early-church/

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids (MI), Eerdmanns, 2007).

Works Cited

[1] https://www.princeodoemena.com/photo-albums/bishop-gene-robinson

[2] Trumbower, J. A., “Jesus’ Descent to the Underworld”, in Idem, Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity (Oxford, 2001) (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology), 91-108.

[3] I’m summarizing Wikipedia contributors, “Harrowing of Hell,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Harrowing_of_Hell&oldid=1083793598 (accessed May 3, 2022).

[4] MLK, “Loving Your Enemies,” Strength to Love (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN; 2010) Page 51.

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