In my previous post I started to discuss the famous doctrine of the “Harrowing of Hell,” where Christ is said to have descended to Hades after his death (since he was a human, after all, and when humans die, they go to Hades. Part of the reason for the doctrine, then, is that if he didn’t go, he wouldn’t have had all the human experiences); but he did not go there forever obviously (in this way he was *unlike* everyone else!) but as the son of God he went to bring his salvation to those who had died previously (who could not be saved by his death because it hadn’t happened yet.)
I pointed out in the previous post that some theologians said that Christ went to Hades to preach to those who were there to give them the chance to repent (who wouldn’t want to get outta there?? Apparently some or lots?) but others claimed that he went to assert his raw power over his enemies to show who was Lord and King.
These reflections are drawn from the final chapter of my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press, 2022). I continue here with a bit more from the chapter, dealing with another intriguing but scarcely known issue addressed by early Christian theologians reflecting on it.
Closely related to and often completely intertwined with the question of why Christ descended – to preach or to assert his power — is the issue of its salvific effect. At an early stage, the answer appears to have seemed rather obvious: Christ went to Hades to save patriarchs and prophets of Israel, that is, the saints who lived before Christ who could not, technically, believe in his salvific death and resurrection except proleptically. Once he fulfilled his earthly task, however, they were delivered from the darkness of Hades and brought to their heavenly reward (thus, e.g., Irenaeus Adv.haer. 4.27.2; Ep. Apost. 72; and even up to Augustine In sermo de symbolo 7). Very soon – possibly immediately – other righteous Israelites (who did not happen to be named in the Old Testament) came to be included among those delivered by Christ at his descent. This, for example, is the view attacked indirectly by Marcion, who left “all the righteous” (as Irenaeus termed them) in the infernal realm.
Further questions of equity arose, however. If righteous Jews were saved from Hades, why not righteous gentiles? Clement of Alexandria addresses the question head-on by expanding Christ’s infernal mission: he preached salvation to all the upright in the netherworld, both Jew and Gentile (Strom. 6.6, based on a clever exegesis of Isa. 42:6-7). Soon thereafter Origen appears to agree: he speaks of Christ’s mission to convert the denizens of Hades but nowhere indicates Christ directed his efforts only to Jews.
Whether Christ went to save the righteous Jews, or all Jews, or Jews and Gentiles, there is still the question of how effective he was. If his goal was to preach his gospel of salvation, did he speak literally to everyone or just to those he knew would accept his message? Was he declaring them saved or giving them an opportunity to accept an offer of salvation? If he went to destroy the powers below, did he do it completely or only in part? If completely, did he provide an alternative arrangement for justice, some other form of punishment outside of Hades? Or did he deliver every single soul from damnation? Lots of interpretive options were on offer.
Those who wanted to magnify the glorious effects of Christ’s appearance in the world below often engaged in considerable rhetorical excess. If Christ’s preaching really was irresistible, or if his power actually was unstoppable, surely all would be saved. No one could resist. Some authors do say that, but most then qualify their claims. We see qualified exuberance already with our first surviving Christian author Paul, who, does say that in the end all creatures everywhere will worship Christ (Phil. 2:10-11) and that all who participated with Adam in sin (that is, every human being ever) will also participate with Christ in salvation (Romans 5). But he still speaks of divine wrath against sinners, coming destruction, and the judgment seat of Christ (e.g., Rom. 1:18; 2:6; 1 Thess. 5:3). So in what sense will everyone be saved?
Later admirers of Paul made similar bold claims, but often it is easy to see beneath the rhetorical excess. Origen can say that at his descent Christ completely destroyed the kingdom of death and led away its captives, liberating those who were held there (Comm.Rom 5.1.37; 5.10.12; In lib. Reg. Hom 2); but given his teaching of the apokatastasis, he clearly did not really mean it as a literal description of what happened. So too Cyril of Alexandria, who describes the Descent as having a universal effect: Christ descended “and preached to the spirits in Hades; he appeared to those confined in the house of prison, and he freed everyone from their bonds and pain (καὶ πάντας ἀνῆκεν δεσμῶν καὶ ἀνάγκης, Commentary on Luke 4:18 PG 72, 537). But that he does not mean “everyone” becomes clear elsewhere, most notably in his Commentary on John 3:36 (PG 73. 286-88), where he affirms that everyone will be raised from the dead, but not necessarily to “see life.” Those who do not believe will never see life; after their resurrection they will experience punishments far harsher then death itself (PG 73, 286-88).
Many early theologians who wanted to affirm universal salvation Christ brought at Christ’s descent but also the judicial need for eternal damnation simply claimed that Christ made salvation available to everyone in Hades – even the worst of sinners – but that not everyone accepted the offer. Even this idea was often challenged by orthodox thinkers: surely sinners would not be given a second chance after death. And so, we have the polemic of Filaster of Brescia:
“There are some heretics who say that the Lord descended to Hades and announced to all who had died there that if they confessed their faith there they would be saved…”
After this in my chapter I move to a discussion of some of the key texts that provide an actual narrative of Christ’s “Descent to Hell,” especially a little-known book called the Questions of Bartholomew and another book that may not be well known to today but was highly influential throughout the Middle Ages, the Gospel of Nicodemus – one of my favorite apocryphal Gospels. Maybe in later posts I’ll describe it. It’s got some real zingers in it, and some serious textual/historical problems that I wrestle with in my chapter….