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The Harrowing of Hell

I recently wrote a 70-page script, “The Harrowing of Hell,” the unlikely title of a proposed new video about postmillennial eschatology.

Here is an experimental bumper that might be used in the video:

Here is an excerpt from my script:

The term “Harrowing of Hell” refers to idea that Christ descended into Hell, as stated in the Apostles’ Creed. It is further thought (by many) to mean that He made warfare against Hell releasing its captives, particularly the righteous men and women of Old Testament times.

The Greek wording in the Apostles’ Creed is katelthonta eis ta katôtata … and in Latin descendit ad inferos.

The Greek ta katôtata means “the lowest” and the Latin inferos means “those below.” This is where we get the Italian word inferno (the word Dante used for “hell” in The Divine Comedy.) Inferos may also be translated as “the underworld,” “the netherworld,” or “hell.” So this phrase is usually translated in most English versions of the Apostles Creed as “descended into hell.”

The English word “harrow” is a form of “harry,” a military term meaning “to make predatory raids or incursions” against an enemy in warfare.

We get the term “harrowing of hell” from numerous Old and Middle English sermons on the triumphant descent of Christ into hell between the time of His crucifixion and His resurrection, when He brought salvation to souls held captive there.

In support of this view, Acts 2:27 and 2:31 declare in effect that Hades (the “place of the dead” or “hell”) could not hold the crucified Christ.

1 Peter 3:19-20 says that Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah.”

1 Peter 4:6 says, “For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead.”

2 Corinthians 2:14 may also be interpreted to speak of the harrowing of hell.

Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place (2 Corinthians 2:14).

We should point out that this doctrine is controversial. Not all theologians agree that these scriptures mean that Jesus visited hell in person after He died on the cross. Some rightly argue that Christ did not need to make warfare over an already defeated foe. But it is clear from the plain meaning of scripture that Jesus certainly triumphed over hell. At the cross, He defeated sin and death once and for all defeating Satan and all his works.

Central to this credo is a statement made by Jesus: “But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you” (Matthew 12:28). This casting out of demons or the “harrowing of hell” was the preeminent sign that the kingdom had come on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is already here, but it has not yet grown to its fullness. The kingdom is likened to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field until it grew into a great tree (Matthew 13:31). It is also likened to leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened (Matthew 13:33). The kingdom of God is already here, but it is always progressing and growing until it spreads into the whole world.

The role of the Church during history is to bring all things into captivity to Christ. Satan and the forces of hell have already been defeated – and yet still greater victory lies ahead.

Now if we are going to work for the kingdom of God with an eye toward winning, we must have an eschatology of victory. If we are to bring everything into captivity to Christ, we must have a theology that tells us it is impossible to lose. Ideas have consequences. We must believe that we are the people of victory and Christ is going to triumph in history. Only when all things are put under His feet will the last enemy, death, be destroyed.

As 1 Corinthians 15:25,26 tells us:

For he must reign, till he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:25,26).

Now this is a remarkable truth. And yet few people have taken it this at face value and have considered its plain meaning. According to this passage, Christ is reigning now from heaven. He will do so until all enemies of the Gospel are put under His feet. Through the conversion of the nations of the world, God’s enemies will be destroyed. The last enemy, death, is destroyed only at the Second Coming. Until that time, we can look forward to great victories. We are told that “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15).

And the exciting part of this promise is that we Christians are to be used of God to put His enemies into submission. The idea that the Lord has entrusted the stewardship of the world to His people is found in the parable of the talents in Luke 19. Here the Lord says to His servants, “Occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13). The Lord is gone for a long time, while His most faithful servants work to increase the wealth of their Master’s kingdom.

When the Master returns, He rewards those who have done the best job with the wealth entrusted to them in advancing the kingdom in their Lord’s absence. Those who work for the advance of the kingdom receive rulership over entire cities. But the enemies of God who would not work to increase the wealth of their master are slain with the sword (Luke 19:27).

So ideas do have consequences. If we believe that Satan is already bound according to Revelation 20:2 and Christ is seated on the throne of heaven, then what type of stewards should we be? Should we tirelessly work for the increase of the kingdom of God in history? – Or should we act like the unfruitful servants hide our talents in hope that we won’t lose the little that God has given us?

Jesus further elaborated on this promise: “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (Matthew 12:28-29).

The New Testament speaks of the binding of Satan in various places. Satan falls from heaven (Luke 10:18); he is cast out of heaven (John 12:31); he was crushed under our feet (Romans 16:20); he was disarmed (Colossians 2:15); he was rendered powerless (Hebrews 2:14); his works were destroyed (1 John 3:8).

Are we, the people of God, to live in the shadow of fear of the devil and a world system bent on evil and destruction content to be rescued only at the Second Coming of Jesus? Or are we to be active participants, soldiers in the war against hell, following in the train of Christ to plunder the strong man’s house?

While much is made in recent years of different and competing theories on the end times, we are going to confine our discussion to one central issue.

And that is this: Does the defeat of Satan’s kingdom and the great increase of the kingdom of God occur before or after Jesus returns?

If we look at God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament of a Golden Age of great peace and prosperity in the “last days,” does this promise extend to the Church within our present history – or is it confined to a future thousand-year reign of Christ on earth after His return? While all Christians should believe in the victory of Jesus Christ and the rule of God’s people during the millennium, this only begs the questions:

And that is what this presentation is about.

In short, we want to provoke and challenge your thinking here to consider the question:

How powerful is the Gospel?

Comments

Your comments are welcome!

I can't wait to read more, Jay! Fascinating and a subject that I admit being confused about.

Posted by Paula on 10/20/2014 01:57 PM #

The Harrowing of Hell is an interesting concept;however, as you know, the Methodist Church deleted that statement in the late eighteenth century. Some theologians believe that such a teaching is not in Scripture. They use Luke 23,43 to support this claim. Paul said that Paradise was in the Third Heaven(II Corinthians 12:1-12).

Posted by Charles E. Miller, Jr. AB in German Studies,MA in Religion on 02/07/2013 08:39 PM #

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Foundations in Biblical Eschatology

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