I remember as a small boy enduring the service in a very conservative Baptist church and looking at a very strange painting on the wall depicting Christ's harrowing of hell, which refers to Christ's activity during the time between his crucifixion and his being raised from the dead. I'm sure many of the congregants did not realize what it was, and I only learned about this decidedly non-Baptist doctrine years later under the guidance of a high church Methodist minister. As a boy, though, it did grab my imagination as I saw a magnificent and heroic Christ rescuing tormented souls and sending devils and demons cowering in terror. It certainly didn't fit with the general impression otherwise given by my boyhood congregation, that of a rather meek and mild Jesus who was too pitiful to intimidate anyone, let alone anything so ferocious as a devil.
I don't know if many Christians really believe in this old concept anymore. There are a few biblical references that can be worked a little bit to support the idea, but they are admittedly pretty weak. I Peter 3:19–20 says that Jesus "went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah…." Not many can really tell with much authority what this really means unless they are willing to drag unsuspecting students into the maze of inter-testamental literature (such as I Enoch and the like). Then there is Ephesians 4:8-10, which talks about Christ descending to the "lower, earthly regions" (εἰς τὰ κατώτερα τῆς γῆς). But again, this doesn't really lead one to think in terms of Christ being some kind of divine Viking raiding the ill-equipped and defensively weak guardians of hell.
Still, I am beginning to think that the idea of Christ harrowing, or attacking, hell is a very useful image. For one thing, God did do this very thing in Christ when God became flesh and lived among us. This was a pretty daring invasion of enemy territory where evil is so dominant. Then, even if Christ did not actually descend to hell after his crucifixion, his dying on the cross for our sins was a devastating blow to all the forces of evil who were stripped bare by Christ's death and revealed as weak, pathetic powers who only have authority over us when we choose to allow it. So, in many ways all of Christ's work is a harrowing of hell, since this world is, as Martin Luther so well stated, "with devils filled."
By now, if you are among the hearty who have persevered in reading this blog, you may be asking me where I'm heading with this. It seems to me that as followers of Christ, we are all called to carry on the mission of Christ to unmask the powers of this world as pretenders and deceivers. We are all to be "harrowing hell" in whatever place and situation we have been placed by God. We are to be revealing the power of Christ over whatever challenges and obstacles we are facing? Many of you know that recently my ten year old son underwent a surgery that left him paralyzed from the waist down. This is a hellish experience that threatens my son and my family with devastation in many ways. Yet, here the power of Christ to rob evil of its prey is revealed, and despite the threat of despair, God is glorified as we allow ourselves as a family to be used by God to demonstrate the triumph of God's grace. Instead of disintegration and loss, the power of God to sustain and provide for us is shown to be real in the midst of such great difficulty.
Whatever our circumstances, we are to be agents of God's grace and power, challenging the very things that seek to oppose God and keep people from God. In our professions, whether it be pursuing political office or surviving in a menial job, we can be God's agents to bring hope to those who are "in prison," first of all by our own freedom in Christ and then by sharing with those in our circle of life that Christ can set them free as well. It is just as much a harrowing of hell when a low paid temporary worker doing menial work at a factory does so with an attitude of hope in Christ as when a high profile politician dares to approach the responsibilities of their office with an attitude of Christ-likeness and an integration of their faith with their politics.
In our life situations, whether we are relatively healthy and comfortable or burdened with physical problems and facing societal oppression, we can show that our trust is not in the protection of princes or conformity to social pressures. Rather, we can show our neighbors the peace that comes only with trusting the One who reigns over all and who fills all who thirst for righteousness. The powers of hell will not like this, and will demand the withdrawal of hope and faith from their domain. After all, they are being "harried." But when we press our advantage in Christ over these evil forces, others will see how weak and powerless they really are, and hell will lose even more "prisoners" as they realize they can through Christ simply choose to be free.
So, in the face of a world that seems suspiciously like hell, I like the idea that Christ invaded the domain of evil, and heroically began to spring people from the grip and influence of satan. I like the idea that the devil is being harassed and harried by the constant attacks of Christ through his followers. Obviously, when we challenge satan and his power we do so with humility in the name of Jesus the Christ, but isn't that what our lives are to be -- a constant and excruciating pain in the rear for all that is vile and evil in this world.
I like the image that we are fighters --- indeed, dare I say, soldiers --- who are following the bravery of our Commander who leads us in a battle to reclaim and restore this world to God's vision for it. It's the kind of image my Viking ancestors could relate to, it's the kind of image I find invigorating, and it is the kind of Saviour all the "prisoners" of this world desperately need to see in everyone who claims to follow the Harrower of hell. As Martin Luther made so clear so many years ago...
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
In Christ's Peace,