The return of Christ and the harrowing of hell

Harrowing of hellAdvent is a time of preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ child. Less often acknowledged, it is a time of preparing our hearts for the return of the triumphant Christ. Are we perhaps too comfortable with the homey images of the baby Jesus? Perhaps we should pay more careful attention to what the uncomfortably supernatural Jesus Christ has already accomplished in his first coming.

He was born of a virgin, as God promised as early as Genesis 3:15. There we read that the “seed of the woman” would crush the devil. He lived as an ordinary human, suffering every temptation any other human has ever faced.

In his public ministry, he went about doing good with supernatural signs and wonders. What he taught in the process was both exciting and disturbing. The religious establishment became disturbed enough to commit judicial murder. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead and, 40 days after that, bodily ascended to heaven.

What happened in those three days?

According to the Apostle’s Creed, Jesus descended into hell. Squeamish modern Christians often omit saying that line, but it’s important. Jesus died for us fully, in every way any human can die. He carried all the sins of the world into hell.

By the way, in Greek that’s hades, the place of the dead, not gehenna, the Jerusalem trash heap that Jesus called the hell of fire. For all of the rest of us, sin is part of our essence, part of who we are from conception. That’s one reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. God needed Mary’s womb, but not either her or Joseph’s genetic material, so that Jesus could enter the world “through the door.”

Jesus was sinless, and took our sins upon him. Alone among any human who has ever walked the earth, he could cast his burden of sin down and overwhelm the devil. According to 1 Peter 3:18-20, he became alive in the Spirit and then preached to those imprisoned (in hades.)

In Adam, all die. In the same way, in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). And it began between Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection.

Theology lesson in an icon

Harrowing of hadesTake a careful look at either version of the icon. Christ has smashed the gates of hell and fashioned them as a bridge over the pit of hell. Below, all manner of chains and shackles lie broken. In one, Satan himself is bound, powerless to prevent the destruction of his kingdom.

In both versions Christ pulls Adam and Eve from their coffins. But remember: “Eve” was the man’s name for the woman. According to Genisis 5:1, God’s name for both of them was adam, the generic Hebrew word for human being. We don’t see Jesus raising two individuals. We see him raising the entire human race from bondage to sin and death.

The man and woman have no power to stand on their own. Apparently, they don’t even have much power to reach out to Jesus. He has grabbed them by the wrist in order to pull them out of a predicament they entered deliberately.

If Jesus did all that before his resurrection, why are we still here on this mud ball? Why hasn’t God ended everyone’s misery already by bringing down the curtain on this world and taking us all to heaven?

I don’t pretend to know. When I listen to “experts” in end-time prophecy trying to explain the timetables in Daniel and Revelation, I just get more confused. No two of them come up with explanations that agree.

But I do know that before his ascension, Jesus said to go into all the world and make disciples. The church hasn’t yet made it to all the world, and too often it has been content to make converts instead of disciples.

Jesus Christ will return in final victory at the appointed time and after the church has finished its part. Meanwhile, we continue to look forward to his coming, especially during each Advent season. But regardless of how fiercely the enemy fights us, the outcome is not in doubt. Jesus Christ has already won the victory.

Sources of the icons undetermined.


The return of Christ and the harrowing of hell — 2 Comments

    • They certainly are magnificent, Dave. Unfortunately, I know nothing about them. I always try to credit the source of images when I know them. I wrote this post quite a while ago, and I don’t even remember where I found them or what I knew about them.

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