Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Harrowing of Hell

According to Christian tradition, Christ descended into hell after the Crucifixion and freed all the righteous who had lived before his advent, including Adam & Eve. This is known as the Harrowing of Hell. The story didn't originate with the Gnostics per se, although the gnostic teacher Marcion (2nd century AD) is known to have discussed the notion that Christ descended into hell into order to free those who had lived in earlier times. For without hearing Christ's message, according to the church, it was impossible to gain salvation. Therefore, without the Harrowing of Hell, countless good souls would be condemned.

The story first appears in written form in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, written in the 3rd century, and included by MR James in his The Apocryphal New Testament. It's a fascinating text, describing Christ's appearance in hell as a light, and his presence there sends Beelzebub, the prince of hell, and his demons into a frenzy:

Who art thou, who hast no sign of corruption, but that bright appearance which is a full proof of thy greatness, of which yet thou seemest to take no notice?

Who art thou, so powerful and so weak, so great and so little, a mean and yet a soldier of the first rank, who can command in the form of a servant as a common soldier?

The King of Glory, dead and alive, though once slain upon the cross?

Who layest dead in the grave, and art come down alive to us, and in thy death all the creatures trembled, and all the stars were moved, and now hast thou thy liberty among the dead, and givest disturbance to our legions? (XVI-3-6)

It's easy to imagine a Gnostic hearing this story and interpreting hell as the material world, and the light that cometh into the darkness being that of the gnosis Christ brought. The Harrowing of Hell is, in Gnostic terms, an account of liberation from the darkness of materiality and ignorance, a song of spiritual release, but also one that seems to have a provocatively antinomian element, such as in this conversation between Beelzebub and Satan:

For behold now that Jesus of Nazareth, with the brightness of his glorious divinity, puts to flight all the horrid powers of darkness and death;

He has broke down our prisons from top to bottom, dismissed all the captives, released all who were bound, and all who were wont formerly to groan under the weight of their torments have now insulted us, and we are like to be defeated by their prayers.

Our impious dominions are subdued, and no part of mankind is now left in our subjection, but on the other hand, they all boldly defy us. (XVIII-3-5)

Indeed, the Gnostics would like to see everyone released from hell. And where might we find the domain of shades? It is all around us, a product of society, culture, politics; and inside us also, what Blake dubbed the 'mind-forged manacles'. Or, as Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles reminds us, 'Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.'

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