The Harrowing of Hell

In his letter to a Mrs. Sutherland (April 28, 1960), Lewis introduces several points about heaven that might catch you. Do you have hope of heaven? Do you know that there’s a place prepared for you and that in God’s plan, you now belong in heaven because of Jesus’ death and resurrection? These are part of the orthodox Christian’s view of what comes after this life and the hope made certain in Jesus.

OK, but how about those who lived before Jesus’ work? The Nicene Creed says that Jesus, “descended into hell and on the third day rose again…” It’s based I Peter 2: 18-19:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (NIV)

Lewis says that the ancients may have been right. They had no hope in heaven, and perhaps it’s because there was not a heaven fashioned for human beings to inhabit. “The New Testament always speaks of Christ not as one who taught, or demonstrated, the possibility of a glorious after life but as one who first created the possibility – the Pioneer, the First Fruits, the Man who forced the door,” Lewis says.  Now, with Jesus’ completed work, he has made a way, prepared a home, made many mansions for us.

Lewis does acknowledge the ancient view of “exceptional individuals” climbing to reach Olympus glory, but says that, “That was as much out of common course in their scheme as Elijah’s being caught up  in the fiery chariot is in ours.” True, there were other mystic groups and certainly the Egyptians, as Lewis references in passing, who had a more worked out view of the afterlife, but the point is nevertheless an interesting one: did heaven exists in the same way prior to Jesus’ work on Earth, inside time, as God revealed, sacrificed, resurrected before his human creation?

“I believe in something like this,” Lewis explains to Mrs. Sutherland. We understand that Jesus did go to hell to preach to those who came before the cross. We understand that he saved some of them and brought them to heaven with him.

“The medieval authors,” says Lewis, “delighted to picture what they called ‘the harrowing of hell’, Christ descending and knocking on those eternal doors and bringing out those who He chose…. That would explain how what Christ did can save those who lived long before the Incarnation.”

Jesus says that he is the way, truth and life. We know heaven is waiting for those who believe in Jesus and his work of redemption. Lewis makes this the point that reorders all other points; the Truth that makes subservient all other truths; the eighth day of creation. What happened to human souls prior to Jesus is debatable and it’s easier to land in a place of reflection and imagination then in anything sharpened by dogma alone. Nevertheless, as Lewis says, the absence of a heaven made for human beings does explain Jesus’ desire to preach to the imprisoned spirits.

What do you think? Have you reflected on the hope of heaven?


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