Contrary to what many people assume, the Lord’s exaltation begins not with His resurrection, but with His descent into hell. Quick catechism review: The Lord’s work as given in the creed is divided into His humiliation and His exaltation. His humiliation goes from His conception to His death. His exaltation goes from His descent to forever.
This fits a theme we’ve been working with from the Gospel of John, that when He said, “It is finished,” this was His ultimate glory, His ultimate triumph, the beginning of His exaltation. Was this the “little word that fell” Satan, of Luther’s famous hymn?
We’ve been contemplating that what was “finished” was the restoration of creation, or, its re-creation. The Lord was finished with the creation and rested on the seventh day. As it is written, “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.”
So also Christ rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath Day. Now He had completed the Father’s work.
But, one might note, Jesus was dead. That is true, but in another sense He was just sleeping, like the little girl or like Lazarus. He is the firstfruits of those who sleep. He was sanctifying the graves of all believers. He was filling Himself into that saddest of places, making it a place of triumph and victory. This is why its so important to maintain His exaltation was going on then. If Christ’s exaltation begins there, surely it also begins for all those who die in His name, for all who are lowered into the grave.
So what was Jesus doing when He descended into hell? Or better put, we should define this place as Sheol, or Hades, the place of the dead, for a reason you’ll see why in a bit. Hell, understood as a place of eternal, fiery abandonment – the Lake of Fire – is something for the end of time, Revelation tells us. But Sheol or Hades, well, this is where the Old Testament saints went. As Jacob said when mourning for Joseph, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” And as Jesus says through the Psalmist, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”
Jesus did not go to the place of eternal fiery torments. He went to the place of the death, which yes, was governed by the powers of death (of course) and therefore the devil (Beelzebub, Lord of the flies), but was not yet the place we normally think of when we think of hell, the fiery place of eternal death.
So what Jesus doing there? St. Peter says He went there to preach. What was He preaching and to whom was He preaching?
One ancient Christian belief was Jesus went there to preach to the Old Testament saints (like Jacob) and lead them out. This is the basis for all the artwork known as the “Harrowing of Hell.” Its rooted in several biblical passages which provide the details for the artwork.
For instance, in one of the Easter Vigil readings, we hear the promise to Abraham, “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.” Jesus will possess the gates of hell.
What kind of gates were these? A Psalm says, “For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.” And then Isaiah, “I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron.”
And of course, Jesus fulfilled this when He got the keys of death and Hades, which He gave to the apostles, so that the “gates of hell” could not keep them from releasing souls trapped there by their sins.
Some more imagery describes Hades as a gaping mouth. From Proverbs: “like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole, like those who go down to the pit.” And from Isaiah, “Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure.”
And that leads to Jonah, which lays the foundation for Jesus’ death, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” As Jesus said, this is a prophecy of Him lying in the tomb.
And that reference to Sheol as a pit gets picked up by Jesus as well, when He said, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” Is that not exactly what Jesus did with His sheep on the Sabbath?
So, when Jesus descended into Sheol with His keys, He went into the belly of the great fish, barred by bronze gates, to bust these gates, save His people, and lead them up and out. In the Harrowing of Hell iconography, Jesus usually is holding Adam, who represents all mankind. You’ll also see the broken bronze gates crushing Satan, as well as the keys.
Now, here’s where things become interesting but also debatable. While all church fathers believed Jesus went down to save the Old Testament saints, there was some debate whether He also went down to preach to the unbelieving pagans who never heard the Word.
If that’s the case, this would explain why St. Paul told the Athenians, “In the past God overlooked [your ignorance regarding idolatry.]” How could God have overlooked? What would this have meant? He gave them a pass? Hardly. But if Jesus preached to the Athenians in Sheol, this could explain how God overlooked their earthly sins. Does God do the same today for those who never have heard? That’s an interesting question. But now at least, for those who do hear the Gospel, as St. Paul says, there is no more overlooking.
Christ’s descent into Sheol is part of the message of the Gospel. It’s where He reaches down and grabs His sheep who have fallen into its pit. That could be the pit of despair, the pit of sin, the pit of disease, or just…the pits. Every sermon is Jesus descending into Sheol – our Sheol – to grab the hands of our faith and pull us up and out.