Harrowing Hell: Part 3- Gustaf Aulen and Christus Victor

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.

Harrowing Hell part 2:

John Chrysostom, in his Easter homily of 400 a.d. quotes Isaiah  “You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below” (Chrysostom) and Melito of Sardis, in the 2nd century celebrated Christ’s resurrection with these words:

Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ (On the Passover, part 102).

One clarification we must make in our understanding of the language is that hell may not have meant the lake of fire that many of us think of today. The Greek word Hades, and the Hebrew word Sheol referred to the place of the dead. Later wordings of the creed reflect this by saying “Christ descended to the dead” (A Christian Presence in Every Community). However, that is not to say that Christ descended into some limbo of nothingness.  The catechism of the Catholic Church states that

“Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him” (Catechism, 180).

McGrath, writing on “the harrowing of hell” states “According to this, after dying on the cross, Christ descended to hell, and broke down its gates in order that the imprisoned souls might go free” (McGrath, 335). So, the idea of the Harrowing of Hell is more complex than one may initially think it is.

On Harrowing Hell

The Harrowing of Hell

The Apostles Creed states in the 4th line that Christ:

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:” 

He descended into hell.

Growing up in a non-liturgical setting, I was not aware of the Apostles Creed, I did not read or recite it until later into adulthood. Being Baptist, when it came to remembering Easter, I knew that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and raised on Easter Sunday, and I did not think much about the time in between.  There was no teaching on it. Encountering the Apostles Creed later opened up that timeline to me and gave me an idea of what happened between Friday and Sunday while Jesus was in the tomb. My Baptist understanding was that Christ slept in death but, as I encountered the Apostles Creed, I questioned if that was all that happened in between.

I later discovered that this “in between time” had a name: “The Harrowing of Hell”.  In The Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, article 3 states: “AS Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell”(A Christian Presence in Every Community). There is no elaboration beyond this statement. I will explore more fully what this may mean.

There are several scriptures the church has pointed to for a clearer understanding of just what Christ did between crucifixion and resurrection. Catholic theologian, Dr. Taylor Marshall, writing on the subject of Christ’s descent into hell notes the following:

  1. Saint Paul teaches us in Ephesians 4:9 that Christ our Lord descended into Hell after He offered His life on the cross. “Now that He ascended, what is it, but because He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?”
  2. Saint Peter said in Acts 2:24 that “God hath raised up Christ, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it.” Christ loosed the Old Testament saints from hell.
  3. Saint Peter also wrote in 1 Peter 3:19 that “Christ coming in spirit preached to those spirits that were in prison, which had some time been incredulous.” On this verse, Saint Athanasius says that “Christ’s body was laid in the sepulchre when He went to preach to those spirits who were in bondage, as Peter said.
  4. The prophet Hosea foretold the descent of Christ into Hell in Hosea 13:14 by placing these words into the mouth of the Messiah: “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.”
  5. Zechariah foretells the redemption of those in the Limbo of the Fathers in Zech 9:11: “Thou also by the blood of Thy Testament hast sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit.” What could this mean except that the Messiah would free people from the underworld?
  6. Colossians 2:15: “Despoiling the principalities and powers, He hath exposed them confidently.” This refers to Christ’s victory over the condemned angels who are the demons of Hell.
  7. Psalm 23:7: “Lift up your gates, O ye princes,” which the medieval Gloss interprets: “that is–Ye princes of hell, take away your power, whereby hitherto you held men fast in hell” (Marshall) .

Next post we will look at theologians and church fathers more on the topic. For now there’s certainly some scripture to chew on.

Comfortable With Who You Are

Servant-leaders must learn to be comfortable with who God has made them to be and not get  self-worth from the praise and adulation of men. It is flattering to be consulted, asked for advice, but what happens when you’re not the coolest pastor, or the coolest church to go to anymore, if you ever were… one year you’re asked to speak at conferences, sit on committees, and people value your thoughts… how will you handle it when you are not sought out? Politics, circumstance, opinions, and sometimes, people are fickle. If you’re getting your self-worth from anyone or anywhere else but God at some point you will become disoriented.

A Prayer called The Litany of Humility states:

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus. From the desire of being honored …From the desire of being praised …From the desire of being preferred to others…From the desire of being consulted …Deliver me, Jesus.

Learn humility sooner rather than later, practice humbleness and don’t get your self-worth from the praise and adulation of men, learn peace in your heart, learn to affirm others instead of your self interest, encourage others, promote the qualities of others because you are comfortable and confident in whom God has made you.

The Opposite Effect Of An Atomic Bomb

Saint Francis says we should be joyful, good-humoured, and happy…

We ought to be. I am very challenged to live this kind of life at times, yet I know it is the best way to live. It’s the best way to dismantle the atomic bomb of hatred and anger and un-peace that seems to permeate our world these days. The challenge is to “have peace on our lips and also in our hearts” as much of the time as we can be mindful to do so, as Saint Francis would exhort us to do. This may not sound like power to the world, but it is the power that heals and gives new life.

Success

The older I get the less I fear failure.  I’ve found the lessons learned in failures are worth their weight in gold, but especially “not to live in fear”. Most failures don’t kill you, they give you invaluable experience on how to live life forward. If you fail it’s not the end of the world, just take what you’ve learned and apply it. Sometimes you get to help someone else along their way… and that is success.

The Code – An ancient Rule of Living

“May I be an enemy to no one and the friend of what abides eternally.
May I never quarrel with those nearest me, and be reconciled quickly if I should.
May I never plot evil against others, and if anyone plot evil against me,
may I escape unharmed and without the need to hurt anyone else.
May I love, seek and attain only what is good.
May I desire happiness for all and harbor envy for none.
May I never find joy in the misfortune of one who has wronged me.
May I never wait for the rebuke of others, but always rebuke myself until I make reparation.
May I gain no victory that harms me or my opponent.
May I reconcile friends who are mad at each other.
May I, insofar as I can, give all necessary help to my friends and to all who are in need.
May I never fail a friend in trouble.
May I be able to soften the pain of the
grief stricken and give them comforting words.
May I respect myself.
May I always maintain control of my emotions.
May I habituate myself to be gentle, and never angry with others because of circumstances.
May I never discuss the wicked or what they have done, but know good people and follow in their footsteps. ”
– Eusebius of Caesarea, early 4th century

LENT: With Christ In The Desert

With Christ in the Desert:

Moses and the people were in desert places yet God sustained them with manna, a foreshadow of The Bread of Life. Elijah, as a prophet also foreshadowed Christ and God sustained his servant by sending ravens with food to feed him. The Lord may allow us to travel through desert places but as David said “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” Jesus taught us to pray “Give us today our daily bread… and deliver us from evil…” Even in the desert God sustains.

Into The Desert With Christ

Solidarity with Christ is not my “achievement,” I must let Him draw me in to himself, lose myself in him, give up all that is my own in exchange for all that is his, and all that he has done that I could never do for myself… The only place to find myself is to abandon the search and  follow Christ into the desert.

I Am The Bread

“I am the bread who came down from heaven…unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.…”

Adam and Eve ate of the tree and broke fellowship with God. How is it that God chose to use something to eat to re-establish fellowship with us? Through Jesus HE reverses the curse, He reverses the effect of sin and death, HE turns this act of eating that was a form of disobedience, into an act of obedience, which sets us free. 

And that is Communion.

(credit to sparks of creativity to author dee henderson)