In English, the Apostle’s Creed teaches that Jesus descended “to the dead” or “into hell” depending on which version we use. However, the Greek version states that “κατελθοντα εις τα κατωτατα”, “he went down to the lowest”. At least since the second Century, many Christians have believed that Christ descended literally into the underworld, and preached to the dead.
The ‘Harrowing of Hell’, as it is often called, is particularly important in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the great Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom, dating from around the year 400, is preached every year at Easter Eve.
For Chrysostom, this is the moment where Christ literally enters Hell and takes it prisoner, binding the Devil and death in chains. “He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!” Easter Eve is where the eternal life-giving force of God meets the power that death and evil have in time, and destroys them. This is the great mystery of the Christian faith – by dying Christ destroyed our death. By embracing, of His own free will, the power of evil to wound and destroy, Christ annihilated that power.
When life is good, it is easy to become transfixed with the pleasures of life. Nor is this altogether a bad thing – we are made by God to enjoy the wonder that is the world He created. We worship a God who became human to give us life in all its fullness, not to condemn the world but to save it. But the reality of living in a fallen universe is that the good times cannot last forever. Summer’s lease does have all to short a date.
It is only when we accept that this life is transient, that pain and suffering and death are inevitable, that we are free to destroy their power to bind us in chains. We waste much time not only worrying about our status in life, but like the apostles, seeking to persuade God to give us the best seats in the afterlife. Instead of proclaiming the good news that Christ has freed us from our sins, Christians are far too prone to pointing out the sins of others. We behave like the telltale kid in school, hoping to get some other child in trouble with the teacher, in the vain hope that our own misdeeds will be forgotten about in the confusion. This is folly, and heretical folly at that.
It is when life becomes a living hell, and Satan comes to us with his sweet and tempting lies that the only sensible thing to do is to trample over others to escape, that Christ descends to the lowest and preaches the good news to us.
It is only when we hit rock bottom, and we can no longer delude ourselves that we have any capacity to free ourselves from either sin or death, that we are free to live as God truly wishes us to live. It is when our illusions of our own righteousness have been shattered that we are free to love unconditionally.