Gustav Aulen, in chapter 3 of his book, Christus Victor, notes that though the early fathers had some divergent views, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, and Augustine all agree on this classical understanding of the atonement: that Christ, having died and descended into hell, overthrew the powers of darkness and broke the power of death, being raised again victorious. (Aulén, 37-39). Gustav Aulen notes that Augustine taught how:
…the race of men is delivered into the power of the devil on account of its sin; guilt rests on the whole race. Yet God does not cease to love mankind, and the incarnation is proof of the greatness of His love…the coming of His Son… is proof of the greatness of His love…the coming of His Son into fellowship with us, to take upon himself our sufferings and the evil which rests upon us. Thereby we are saved, justified by His blood, reconciled to God through the death of His Son, delivered from the wrath…” (45).
Elsewhere Aulen references Augustine, who explains,
The devil found Christ innocent, but none the less smote Him; he shed innocent blood, and took what he had no right to take. Therefore it is fitting he be dethroned and forced to give up those who were under his power (51).
After 1600 years, this understanding of the work of Christ, and the harrowing of hell, began to fall out of favor during the Enlightenment; however, in the 20th century, theologians like Bishop Gustaf Aulen began to rediscover this ancient understanding of the triumphant and victorious work of Christ in the harrowing of hell. Aulen writes: “Evil ultimately overreaches itself when it comes into conflict with the power of good, with God Himself. It loses the battle at the moment it seems to be victorious” (55). Basically, if a payment for sin was required- God also paid it in full through Christ. He overcomes not by Almighty fiat, but by putting His own skin into the game.
My understanding of the work of Christ has grown and developed greatly since encountering the concept of the harrowing of hell and Christ’s victory over death and the grave. Jesus was not an unknowing victim but a purposeful savior. He did not just rest or sleep while in the grave, it seems that, in combination with his crucifixion on the cross that this harrowing of hell in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday accentuates Christ’s complete and total victory as well as His ultimate sovereignty in all things.