Whatever hell is and wherever it might be, and whatever kind of reality it has, it’s the one place God isn’t and can’t be, right? I’ve said so myself before. Hell is the mind or soul of a human locked in on him- or herself, shutting out all light and life and love – or so I’ve come to believe.
And yet we have this strange Christian tradition of the Harrowing of Hell. It’s the idea that sometime between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his rising again on Easter Sunday, he descended into hell or Hades and (in the words of the first letter of Peter) ‘preached to the souls in prison’. Somehow, if this story is to be accepted in any sense (literal or figurative), Jesus the Son of God enters the place where God cannot go, in order to free those who (in traditional theological thought) cannot be freed.
How this works I have no idea. But if there is any truth in it, whether literal or not, it seems entirely in keeping with the character of God as revealed in Christ. In Jesus, God descends from the highest heaven to redeem broken, bound and blind humanity. It seems then only the logical conclusion of this that he would also descend further, into the lowest hell, in the attempt to redeem even those for whom there is apparently no hope. Whether the attempt is successful or not we do not know, but it has to be made.
And perhaps there’s also another way of looking at it – one which I offer tentatively, and without biblical backing. Perhaps on Holy Saturday Jesus was, for a time, really in hell – not just as a visitor, not just to preach and rescue, but himself as a prisoner and sufferer, one experiencing what it is to be lost and bound and in the utter depths of despair. Perhaps.
So whatever we think about hell – whether or not we believe in it, and whether or not we believe anyone deserves it – we might do well to remember this story of the day God went to hell.