The Harrowing of Hell
“When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive...”
The modern world loves the kind of theology which conceives the things of God in human terms. Miracles are explained away with science, and no topic suffers from this lazy thinking more than the crucifixion of Christ.
That’s why I particularly like that old fashioned phrase, “the harrowing of Hell”. It confounds its critics. Harrowing is aptly descriptive. In farming, a harrow is that big toothed rake pulled behind horses which breaks up hard soil. When someone feels “harrowed” they have been the brunt of some pretty rough treatment. I like to think of “the harrowing of Hell” as the best description of what really went on at Easter.
There’s that portion of the liturgy where we say that Jesus descended into Hell. It explains where Christ went on Saturday following his Crucifixion, and what he was up to while away. He was off harrowing Hell, taking the fight to the Devil’s own turf. Having defeated sin and death on the Cross, Jesus freed the souls of those captive to the Devil since the beginning of time. He was serving up some rough justice for the Devil, in Hell.
The Bible can be violent. Don’t back away. Evil’s violent intent was expressed fully in the crucifixion. Jesus himself said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12). Ancient societies likely had a better grasp of the war between good and evil than the sanitized view we favour today.
The harrowing of Hell explains what the Crucifixion was for. In the moment when Jesus said “It is finished”, the veil in the temple which separated God and Mankind was rent in two. The price of sin was paid on the Cross, and the Devil received a mortal blow to his mission.
All of this was foretold in Genesis 3:15 when God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” In theology, this is called the Proto-Evangelium (first appearance of the Gospel), and the one who crushes the head of the serpent, is Jesus.
Colossians 2:15 tells us, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the Cross.” For all those who have suffered from the wiles of the Devil, this is a time for good cheer. Jesus himself advises us in John 16:33, “take heart! I have overcome the world.”
There are moments to bask in victory, and Easter is one of them. Yes, It’s Sunday morning, but I am holding that picture in my mind of Saturday the night before, when Jesus visited the darkest parts of the underworld, and kicked ass on our behalf. The Harrowing of Hell sounds formal, but I like it.
And so I proclaim with the whole world, “Jesus is risen”, followed by the happy refrain, “He is risen indeed!”