Descent Into Hell

Today is the Easter Vigil, when we wait for Christ to rise from the dead. Many Christian traditions recite the Apostles' or Nicene Creed, which contain the lines He was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to dead. On the third day he rose again. Some translations use the word Hell instead of dead.

One of the apocryphal pieces of literature, The Acts of Pilate (popularly renamed The Gospel of Nicodemus during the Middle Ages, tells of Christ's descent into the dead. t was written sometime between the mid 2nd and mid 3rd centuries and reflects a particular understanding of the events surrounding Jesus' death and resurrection among early Christians sometime around 100 to 200 years after the fact. The text paints an unflattering picture of Jewish involvement in Jesus' death.

Below is my retelling of Christ's descent into Hell. Even though it is not canonical, I find it a very beautiful, moving and inspiring work of early Christianity. (As it is my retelling, it is not wholly accurate to the original source, though it is pretty close.)

After the crucifixion and death of Jesus, Satan was beside him self with pride and descended to Hades to gloat.

"Insatiable one, great devourer of all men, hear me," said Satan. "I have just won a great victory against one of the race of the Jews - an impertinent named Jesus who caused me great injustice in the world. Wherever he found my servants, he persecuted them; and those whom I had made blind, or lame or leprous, or otherwise infirmed, he healed with a single word; there were also many whom I had prepared for death and, again, with a single word he restored them to life."

Hades said, "If he was as powerful as you say, doing such things with only a single word, then I find it amazing that you were able to crush him. I don't see how you could have been able to withstand someone so powerful."

"Insatiable one, great devourer of all men, are you telling me that you are frightened because of what I have said about him? He was only a man; a man with the insolence to call himself the Son of God. It was this conceit I seized upon and worked it upon the Jews until they seized him and had him crucified. As his hour approached, he feared death as all men do, saying, 'My soul is sorrowful, even to the point of death.' And then, just as his spirit prepared to leave his body, he cried out in a loud voice, 'My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?' You see, he was only a man. Now prepare yourself to hold him firmly in your power when he arrives."

Hades said, "Prince of darkness, son of perdition, didn't you tell me that with a single word he freed from death many you had prepared for their graves? If he was able to free others from their graves, then with what power do you propose I should hold him? You say you heard how he feared death; I think he said this to trick you, to lull you into false security as he laid a trap for you. It was not long ago that I swallowed up a man by the name of Lazarus only to have him forcibly snatched from my bowels with a single word. And, if I am not mistaken, it was this same Jesus who did it. I am afraid that if he enters here, then all whom I have swallowed since the beginning of the world shall be torn from me. I swear by the darkness which encompasses us, if he enters here then none of the dead will be left for me."

While Satan and Hades were speaking, a voice like thunder sounded, "Lift up your gates and allow the King of Glory enter."

Hades said to Satan, "Go and keep him from entering - if you can." Then Hades said to his demons, "Secure well the brass gates with bars of iron. Stand vigilant and watch every point. Do not allow him to enter or we shall be lost."

Again the voice sounded, "Lift up your gates and allow the King of Glory to enter."

Hades answered, "Who is this King of Glory?"

The angels of the Lord answered, "It is the Lord strong and mighty; it is the Lord mighty in battle," and immediately, the brass gates shattered into a myriad of pieces and the iron bars were crushed and all the dead who were bound and fettered were freed from their chains.

The King of Glory entered like a man and all the darkness of Hades, to the farthest crevice, was made light. The multitude, which Hades had swallowed since the beginning of the world, gathered before Him.

Jesus seized Satan by the scruff of his neck and handed him over to the angels, "Bind his hands and his feet and his neck and his mouth." When he was bound, Jesus handed him over to Hades and said, "Take him and hold him until my second coming."

Hades took Satan and said to him, "There is not one dead left in me. All that you gained through the Tree of Knowledge you have lost through the tree of the cross. You sought to destroy the King of Glory but, instead have destroyed yourself."

Jesus stretched out His right hand and with a loud voice called out, "Adam, first formed among all men, come to me." From the multitude Adam came forward and Jesus took him by the hand and raised him up. Then He turned to the multitude and said, "All who have suffered death because of the tree which this man had touched, today I raise up through the tree of the cross."

Adam, full of joy, said to Jesus, "I give thanks to you, O Lord, because you have raised me up from the lowest depth of Hades." And Jesus blessed Adam with the sign of the cross on his forehead.

Jesus called out in a loud voice, "Moses, who led my people out of the bondage of Egypt, come to me so that today I may lead you to Paradise." Again He called out, "Abraham, father of a great nation, come to me. Today I raise you and your descendants to Glory." Each in turn, Jesus called out the names of the patriarchs and prophets and martyrs and descendents, blessing each on the forehead with the sign of the cross. And each of the righteous gave praise to Him saying, "Praise and thanks to you, O Saviour of the world, because you have raised us up from the depths of destruction."

After He had named and blessed each one, he led them into Heaven, holding Adam by the hand.

Image nabbed from here.


carra said…
And so you don't think I haven't read this I'll comment on it, I re-read it with a fresh mind, and didn't find it this boring this time. The symbology in this story is absolutely great, the kabbalistic tree of life, the cross, only one thing that confused me... Hades is from Greek mythology, how did it fall into this story? The context is amazing, I just can't believe that all those martyrs were left there for so long! This reminded me of Dante's Inferno for some reason and made me shiver... scary place if it exists...
Richard said…
Dante's ideas and images did not spring forth fully formed as Athene did from Zeus' forehead. I am certain he was aware of and used these ancient texts.

There is the Apocalypse of Paul (written sometime between the 2nd and 4th centuries and I go with later composition), from which Dante could have derived inspiration for his hell: Yet again I looked upon the river of fire, and I saw there an old man who was being dragged along, and they immersed him up to the knees. And the angel Aftemeloukhos came with a great fork of fire, [... text lost ...] by angels, keepers of hell, having in their hands an iron of three hooks wherewith they pierced the entrails of that old man. And I asked the angel and said: Lord, who is this old man upon whom such torments are inflicted? And the angel answered and said unto me: He whom thou seest was a priest who fulfilled not well his ministry, for when he was eating and drinking and whoring he offered the sacrifice unto the Lord at his holy altar.

This is only one torture described; there are many others. It is a disturbing read.

I had meant to clarify Hades in my text, but I forgot. He is a personification of hell, a devourer of life. Similar to Kronos of Greek mythology (or Saturn in Roman mythology) who devoured his children.

I am not happy with my retelling, because it does not flow well. It has powerful imagery and I think it would make a good story if retold well.
carra said…
He whom thou seest was a priest who fulfilled not well his ministry, for when he was eating and drinking and whoring he offered the sacrifice unto the Lord at his holy altar.

Sorry to look like an idiot but what does that mean?
Richard said…
carra: I interpret it to mean that he was a hypocrite who lead a Christian congregation, while ignoring the high standard of Christian life which he professed.

Rather like the public and private life of Eliot Spitzer.

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