The Harrowing of Hell
Blacksburg and Baghdad
There is an ancient icon of the “harrowing of hell” that depicts Jesus “descending into hell”
(as the creed says, and as Paul and Peter suggest) to “made captivity itself a captive.”
I thought of this these past days, when the students were gunned down at Virginia Tech, and then when nine paratroopers from Fort Bragg died in a suicide bombing this week.
If hell is where evil takes off its mask and can be seen in all its awfulness, then Blacksburg and Baghdad certainly were intimations of hell. But then I remember: Jesus has been there, and conquered.
The Jewish-Christian poet, Denise Levertov, sought to describe Jesus’ “harrowing”:
Down through the tomb’s inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling …
If hell is where evil takes off its mask (as at Golgotha) then heaven is where God unmasks himself in perfect love. What an astounding thought it is to know that God in Christ invaded the deepest darkness (whether of the tomb, or the darkest recesses of our hearts, or hell itself) to release our souls from darkness into the kingdom of light. “Heaven is to be in God at last made free” wrote Evelyn Underhill.
“Today you shall be with me in Paradise,” said Jesus to Didmas, the thief next to him on Golgotha. And as Levertov writes,
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these he will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
There were certainly believers among those killed at Virginia Tech. There likely
were among the paratroopers in Iraq. But Jesus was also there among them, “stooping to tug at their hands.”
So in the midst of awful carnage: they are safe.
(Denise Levertov: Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell.)