“I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way” – Robert Frost
By the time we got around to penning unauthorized biographies of our gods, rather than simply offering sacrifices and hoping for the best, the human race realized we might have a theological problem, and in our standard modus operandi when it comes to the mythological, we swept it under the carpet beside the snakes with legs. This is to say, founding a new religion is all well and good, and more lucrative than plastics, but as standardized doctrines coalesce, inevitably classes of folks dedicated to elucidating the finer points of our folktales in a contemporary idiom emerge. Regardless of religion, your hip theologian has traditionally numbered among his skills, the uncanny ability to take something that was say written in Aramaic in the 1st Century B.C., and translate its universal applications to us in 1st Century A.D. Greek or Medieval Spanish. While this exegesis can sometimes lead to lively debate regarding ancient etymology, and a fascinating corpus of linguistic postulation often results, there are occasional instances where even the learned church fathers throw up their hands and proclaim, “We don’t know what the hell they were talking about”. Case in point is the now nearly-extinct Christian theology called “The Harrowing of Hell”.
The term “harrowing of hell” (usually appears in Latin as: Descensus Christi ad Inferos) comes to us from the Old English term for “despoil”, and is the theory that between the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus Christ found the time to descend into hell and bring salvation to the righteous who had the misfortune and lack of foresight to be born before he took the stage. Seems like he was a pretty nice guy and demonstrated it in this early application of the notion that it’s rather impolitic to enact ex post facto legislation, that is, prosecuting you for crimes committed before they were technically criminal. The problem is that apart from a vague reference in Peter 3:19 that mentions Jesus preaching to “imprisoned spirits” and Ephesians 4:9 suggesting he “descended into the lower, earthly regions”, there is a near complete absence of New Testament scriptural evidence that he went anywhere near hell, which would have no doubt been imprudent, somewhat like Charlie Luciano paying a house call to Salvatore Maranzano in the middle of the Castellammarese War (1930-1931, New York City gang war over control of the Mafia). Rumor is he got his nickname “Lucky” when he survived a consequent beating and throat-cutting. Luciano, not Jesus, that is. Somehow, the notion of Jesus taking a day-trip to hell slipped into the later liturgical standard of the Symbolum Apostolicum (Apostles’ Creed), thought to have been written down in the 2nd Century A.D., stating that the apostles believed that Jesus, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell”, as well as in the related Quicunque Vult (Athanasian Creed) which offers “so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead”. While neither of these creeds are canonical per se, they were attributed to the Twelve Apostles by the 4th Century A.D.
Although we have these elusive, but tantalizing references to an excursion into the netherworld, the first appearance of a more robust narrative was in the 4th Century A.D. Gospel of Nicodemus (Nicodemus the Pharisee was a member of the Sanhedrin – a sort of ancient Jewish court and was said to be sympathetic to Jesus), our primary source for the apocryphal Acts of Pilate. The Acts of Pilate, although not reputed to have been written by Pontius Pilate himself, is dubiously claimed to have been compiled from contemporary reports of the Roman governors in Judea and includes an account of Pilate’s subsequent conversion to Christianity. Scholars are quick to point out that the Romans wouldn’t have likely bothered writing a report about a local crucifixion, and that the conversion of Pilate was probably later propaganda to encourage pagans to do likewise. Nonetheless, it is from the Gospel of Nicodemus that we get our earliest clear description of the “Harrowing of Hell”. It’s a great story, with Jesus being all messiah-like, and lots of bitching and moaning by Satan, complaining about the persecution of his servants. It all starts when folks start noticing that a number of their forefathers also seem to have been resurrected.
Joseph said, And why marvel ye that Jesus hath risen? This is not wonderful; but it is wonderful that he arose not alone, but that he also raised many other dead, who appeared unto many in Jerusalem. And if ye know not the others, Simeon at least, who took Jesus (in his arms), and his two sons, whom he raised again, them at least ye know. For we buried them a short time ago, but now their tombs are seen open and empty, and they are living, and abiding in Arimathea. Therefore they sent men and found their sepulchres open and empty. Joseph saith, Let us go to Arimathea, and let us find them (Cowper, 1881, p299).
The explanation, according to the Gospel of Nicodemus is that Jesus bust into Hell, and started rounding up all the forefathers of the Old Testament, from Adam to David and issuing heavenly visas. There are some great action scenes where Jesus rips Satan a new one and has a lot of snarky comebacks to the devil’s protestations, but the gist of it is that Jesus heads down into Hell, spends a little time coaching the patriarchs on the New World Order, opens up a can of whoop-ass on Satan, and organizes a massive prison break.
And setting out to paradise, the Lord holding the hand of Adam our forefather, delivered him and all the just to the archangel Michael; and all the saints followed Michael, and he led them all into the glorious grace of paradise. And as they were going into the door of paradise, there met them two old men, ancient of days, to whom the holy fathers said, “Who are ye, that have not yet been dead with us in the regions below, and have been placed in paradise in your bodies and souls?” One of them answered, and said, “I am Enoch, who by the word of the Lord have been translated hither by Him; and he who is with me is Elijah the Tishbite, who was taken up by a fiery chariot. Here also even until now we have not tasted death, and we are also to live until the end of the world; and then we are to be sent by God to withstand Antichrist, by divine signs and wonders to do battle with him, and, being killed by him in Jerusalem, after three days and half a day to be taken up alive, and to be snatched up in the clouds to meet the Lord” (Donehoo, 1903, p.393).
The theological conundrum being dealt with here is, of course, that an uncountable number of religions and gods have had a solid fan base through the course of human history, and lots of these divine movers and shakers had themselves a supremely unpleasant prison for those nasty folks who didn’t toe the line or for the unbelievers. Most people who ever existed, existed before our big modern monotheisms, and let’s face it, they couldn’t all have been irredeemably evil. Leaving all these folks in eternal torment (or the abject boredom of purgatory) doesn’t really inspire faith in divine compassion. Plus, you might want to hedge your bets in case another messiah trundles in and changes the rules again. It’s awfully hard to reconcile one’s deeply held convictions of the eternal truth of a faith with the fact that nobody was talking about your particular brand for countless millennia. This also provides a good explanation for why theologians tend to sidestep the issue, as well as why the Gospel of Nicodemus didn’t make the final cut in the Christian canon (it’s decidedly bad for membership if you can be a righteous unbeliever and still get a pass), and why people who otherwise advocate for literal interpretations of religious texts have no problem conveniently suggesting that the “harrowing of hell” is a metaphor for the triumph of good over evil. I for one think the “Harrowing of Hell” screams “Hollywood Blockbuster”. Somebody needs to get word to Mel Gibson. The hopeful expectation implied is that there is periodic judicial review of divine sentencing, since deep in our hearts we know of few mortals who are wholly diabolic or entirely angelic, as philosopher David Hume observed, “Heaven and hell suppose two distinct species of men, the good and the bad. But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue”.
Cowper, B. Harris. The Apocryphal Gospels And Other Documents Relating to the History of Christ, Translated From the Originals In Greek, Latin, Syriac, Etc. With Notes, Scriptural References, and Prolegomena. 5th ed. London: F. Norgate, 1881.
Donehoo, James DeQuincey. The Apocryphal And Legendary Life of Christ: Being the Whole Body of the Apocryphal Gospels And Other Extra Canonical Literature Which Pretends to Tell of the Life And Words of Jesus Christ, Including Much Matter Which Has Not Before Appeared In English. In Continuous Narrative Form, With Notes, Scriptural References, Prolegomena, And Indices. New York: The Macmillan company , 1903.