The Messiah’s Descent Into Hell

Christ’s Cross, Descent Into Hell, and Resurrection, is the ‘existential trinity’ that constitutes the Messianic Mystery. Like other radical and fundamental shifts described in the Jewish Bible, it takes 3 Days.

It would seem that no one in Western Christian tradition speaks of the Descent Into Hell. The phrase used in the West, ‘Harrowing of Hell’, implies that hell is ‘upset, traumatized, shocked, disturbed’ when the Messiah enters and seizes hold of it. Nevertheless, the real purpose and consequence of this unexpected confrontation is not understood. Indeed, many Westerners who believe in the dualistic reward and punishment scenario reject any such mysterious event. The gulf between heaven and hell cannot be bridged. You have one chance in this life to book your future dwelling place, in heaven as one of those who are ‘saved’, or in hell as one of those who are ‘damned.’ The implication that the Cross ends this dualism, that by going through hell the Messiah makes it the most reliable ‘stairway to heaven’, is too much of a reversal against the run of play. St Isaac of Syria understands this reversal= “the Cross is the judgement on judgement.”

Things are not much clearer in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. For though it is spoken of by Macarios of Egypt in the early days of desert spirituality, none of the other monastics follows his pioneering descent into the unfathomable abyss of the heart, and over time monasticism as a whole loses all connection with the Daemonic, and becomes instead a ladder of ascent, as in St John Climacos, and is codified as such by Evagrios, with the growing differentiation of the monastic path into 3 steps– [1] the practical or ascetic, [2] the visionary or illuminative, and [3] the mystical or divinizing. In effect, later monasticism becomes a yoga of ascent to Eros, the Light which bestows life, goodness, beauty, abundance of philanthropy; it ceases being the descent to the hellish depth of the heart in all humanity, to change its basis.

There is an Orthodox ikon of Christ violently seizing Adam and Eve by their wrists – of their own strength they cannot change the truth of the human condition — and dragging them out of deeps of deadening, hellishness, vacancy. Christ’s Resurrection resurrects Adam and Eve; Christ brings humanity through, and raises humanity, with him.

But what is Christ’s heroic battle and victory in hell?

It is not to be understood as Christ ‘saving’ humanity for the next world.

Nor is it to be understood as Christ regenerating human nature in this world, by freeing it of the sickness of fallenness [the impact of sin, death, the evil one], in preparation for transforming us through uniting Christ’s divine humanity with our created humanity. Such healing is ontological, focused on the soul, and concerned with life and death. It misses the existential drama of the heart.

The Messiah’s Descent into Hell, in its heroic deed of active and suffering passionate love, changes the deep existential ‘heart ground’ on which humanity stands, and from which humanity acts. It removes the ancient block on the heart acting in this world for the sake of the future world.

The Cross initiates the Descent Into Hell and the Resurrection completes it, crowns it, fulfills it. In a sense, the Descent Into Hell is central, and the Cross is the gateway into it, while the Resurrection is the gateway out of it into the New Land of Heart.

As the Hell descended into by the Messiah is the tragedy in all humanity, so the Resurrection points to the redeeming of that tragedy for all humanity, over the whole span of history. The Resurrection inaugurates the New Age in which there is a movement toward the New Land of Heart for all humanity.

The key transition, then, is the Descent Into Hell. It is not just central, but crucial. To overlook its dramatic significance, as the end of the old way and the start of the new way of heart is to miss the Messianic Redemption.

Apostles Creed= “He descended into hell.” Paul, Ephesians, 4, 9= “He descended to the dead.” 1 Peter, 4, 6= Why [did the Messiah] preach to the dead? In order that although in body they received the fate common to men, they might in their spirit be alive with the life of God.”

These cryptic but stark lines are pointing toward the existential meaning of the ‘Descent Into Hell’ that occurs after the Cross and before the Resurrection. This necessarily intervenes between the going down and the rising up, the dying and the rebirth. That is why the process takes 3 days. It is like a pregnancy, compressed. It is happening underground. We see what leads into it, we see what emerges from it.

Only in the heart do we apprehend what passes in the gap between the initial death and the final rebirth, because the heart undergoes it.