The Harrowing of Hell

Reading Hans Urs von Balthasar on Holy Saturday

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The best way I've found to put the question is this: Are the Gates of Hell broken in, or broken out? Did Christ on Holy Saturday descend to Hell in his glory as the risen king, smashing the gates in as he strode forth to claim the souls of the patriarchs and prophets? Or did he ascend from the depths of Hell in his Resurrection, gathering up the souls around him and breaking open Hell from the inside as he ascended into Heaven?

The biblical basis of Christ's visit to Hell is 1 Peter 3:19 (which declares, "he went and preached unto the spirits in prison") and 4:6 ("for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead"), as supported by Ephesians 4:9 ("he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth"). But the strongest support may come from the canonical belief of early Christians, for the clear belief in the descent to Hell is directly asserted in both the Apostles' Creed and the Athanasian Creed.

Now, that doesn't free the claim from argument among various Christian theologians and denominations. Thomas Aquinas, for example, agrees that Christ went to the precincts of Hell, rolling together several more biblical texts, especially Zechariah 9:11 ("by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit") and Philippians 2:10 ("at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth"). But Aquinas goes on to argue that it is only the virtuous prisoners of Purgatory and the outskirts of Hell who are visited by Christ.

Still, if we take the descent into Hell as a common feature of many Christians' belief, then we have an answer to what Christ did on Holy Saturday. We discover, too, that the answer raises many new questions—as, for instance, the question of whether the Gates of Hell are broken in, or out. And the way we answer that question about Hell has implications for the way we think about Christ.

The traditional view would suggest that the gates are broken in. In Luke 23:43, after all, Jesus says to St. Dismas, the penitent thief, "I say unto thee today shalt thou be with me in paradise." Assuming, as the tradition does, that today modifies be with me instead of I say, Christ seems to be saying that he will rise to Heaven first—and thus descend in his glory to Hell.

The 20th-century theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, however, asks us to consider the consequences of thinking about Jesus not just on Good Friday, the day of death, and Easter, the day of his bodily resurrection, but also on Holy Saturday: the between day, the lost day, when we were bereft of him.

In Mysterium Paschale (1970), von Balthasar explores the possibility that, in taking on human nature, Jesus took on damnation as well. "Who sees God's face, that is self-life, must die," as John Donne wrote in his 1613 Good Friday poem. "What a death were it then to see God die?" If in redeeming humankind Jesus became human unto death, von Balthasar suggests, then he became human to the point of abandonment by God that finds its ultimate expression in damnation to Hell.

Bad as Hell is, imagine how much worse it was for Jesus. His damnation, in the sense of abandonment by God, is testified to on the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). And in von Balthasar's Christology, the separation from God extends, as Jesus dies and falls to Hell—divided from God, as human beings are, by the gap that only Christ's resurrection can bridge. We were cut off from God in the breaking of nature with Adam's sin that only the defeat of death and damnation can repair.

Some readers of von Balthasar's work, particularly of Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? and A Short Discourse on Hell, have charged the Swiss Catholic theologian with heresy, accusing him of holding a universalism in which God redeems everyone, regardless of their deeds, regardless of their beliefs, and regardless of their penitence. To read theology, however, has always seemed to me to ask from us a generosity of critical spirit and a kindness of interpretation. More interesting thoughts emerge if we begin with the assumption that the writers we read are not stupid or filled with bad intent. We may end with the conclusion of heresy, but we should never begin there. Reverent construal demands that, if non-heretical ways to interpret a text are possible, then those are the construals with which we ought to start.

And a reverent construal of von Balthasar's Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? ought to begin with the word hope, a vital term in his theology. Hans Urs von Balthasar is not necessarily suggesting that all are saved. He is asking instead about our capacity to hope that all will be saved, and whether we can even dare to hold that hope—remembering that faith is the substance of things hoped for.

So, too, a reverent construal of von Balthasar's Holy Saturday speculations in Mysterium Paschale ought to begin with their value as thought experiments, their usefulness as devices whereby we can think about the progression of Holy Week. One picture emerges from imagining Christ the King in his glory, coming to harrow Hell. That is the scene, for example, painted by Fra Angelico in 1441.

Another picture comes from imagining Jesus falling from the Cross down to the depths of Hell, his abandonment into the human reality total. He loved us so much that he became the complete man, suffering even damnation for us, before rising to become the resurrected figure of Easter and the Lord of All.

These Christologies, these pictures of Christ, have further implications for theology, and it may be that we decide the regal figure is the more consequential way to imagine his suffering, death, and resurrection. But today, at least, I am drawn to the other picture. I fear to meet the king, but perhaps I can slip in amongst those clinging to the hem of the man's garment as he rises up from Hell. Perhaps the capaciousness and wonder of the Resurrection, the love for us displayed over Holy Week, are a little more visible when we picture the Gates of Hell broken out, not in.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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