27 April 2019

Holy Saturday – the Harrowing of Hell

Icon of the Harrowing of Hell (Russian, 16th century)

On Holy Saturday the Orthodox Church remembers the descent of Christ, the Word of Life, as one of the dead into Hades. As Laozi says in the Daodejing, the highest good, like water, seeks to inhabit the lowest and most despised places, so that the myriad things may benefit without contention. The descent of the Word into hell, into the grave – the single lowest and most despised place, so that those therein might hear it – that is the true completion of Laozi’s understanding of the highest good. Yet even so it is equally true that each of us goes there and has to, whether we want to or not. Christ’s going there ahead of us makes it so that there is no place where His grace does not reach.

I have to wonder, truly, whether the academic-theological arguments about the population of hell are even asking the right questions or proceeding from the right understanding of the Paschal mystery. Whether, like David Bentley Hart, you believe that Hell is ultimately empty; or whether, like his critics (such as Edward Feser, you adhere to a belief in the massa damnata – this argument seems to me to be poorly-centred.

As with any dogmatic question, one has to approach the topic of hell from the perspective which Dorothy Leigh Sayers called ‘the divine drama’, the ‘drama of the soul’s choice’. We Orthodox Christians have a peculiar advantage in that our Liturgical setting provides us with a tactile, sensory, empirical setting for this drama, in which we each become participants in that drama. As Father Paul here at Saint Herman’s would put it, the Pascha ‘it is not mere pageantry; it is the really-real’. We are the ones in the tombs on whom Christ comes to bestow life. Even though we are walking around, we are still mired in sin, subject to the ontology of death and the powers of hell. The Church’s mystagogy, hymnody and prayers all impress upon each of us individually that I and only I am the sinner – a fortiori the chief among sinners, as per the prayer before the Eucharist; or, in the words of the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, ‘more than all have I sinned’. Regarding the question of hell: if anyone is in danger of hell, it is me. Hell is where I am.

The Church presses upon us this conviction, not just today but all throughout Holy Week and indeed throughout Lent, precisely to awaken and arouse us to an awareness of our rôle in the divine drama, which is utterly unique and unrepeatable. As Fr Thomas Hopko of blessed memory writes:
Is it really right to say that I have sinned more than all the others? Does it make sense to claim—in prayer before God no less—that my sickness has surpassed that of David in his murder and adultery? And that sinning more than all others, I have not repented at all? Is this necessary? Is it true? Is it not rather an unacceptable hangover in the Church of a spiritual style that should be expunged from the life of God’s people? Is it not but one more example of that repulsive obsession with sin, that pious fraud of inauthentic devotion, that disgusting hyperbole of liturgical expression that tends more to turn people off than to inspire them to authentic repentance and adoration?

Each person can answer these questions only for himself. But something like the following seems to be the answer. Every person stands alone before God. This is not to say that we are isolated one from another in self-enclosed individuality. Just the opposite is in fact the scriptural claim: ‘
For we are members of one another’ (Eph. 4:25). But we are not in a spiritual contest with one another. And we are not judged before God in comparison with each other. God doesn’t grade on a curve. Each person is unique. Each person has his or her own life to fulfil or to fail. Each human being is personally judged according to God’s righteous judgement, which applies strictly to that person alone.
But it is precisely this lack of personal awareness of one’s place in the divine drama, of the choice before one’s soul, that is most glaring in these academic discussions of hell. Feser notably retreats behind fictional characters, abstractions and scenarios involving mass murderers. He does not seem to grasp at all Lewis’s key point in The great divorce that even murderers and adulterers who abase themselves and repent will be present in heaven, while the ones most in danger of hell are the ‘righteous’ ones who regard heaven as their due and just portion. Hart is on far better Scriptural footing (and makes far better arguments, for that matter) when he says that we are only saved together and that we are members of each other, but the abstraction game is one in which he too seems to indulge needlessly. The standing alone before God, the being locked out of the wedding-feast, the being cast into the outer darkness, the sorrow of separation from God – all of which we perform, actively, in the Paschal Nocturns – seems to be absent from this understanding that retreats behind the abstractions of hypothetical other people. We do not stand in judgement of each other. We will not be allowed to appeal to Feser’s or Hart’s fictional worst-case scenarios in our defence to the dread judgement seat of Christ.

But key to the mystery of Pascha is that Christ comes out to us as we turn toward Him, as we ask of Him, as we knock on the door. To our surprise He is there among us, inhabiting the most despised place. It is precisely because the one single person who never had any need to abase Himself, in fact did abase Himself to the utmost extent, that the hell where we are at Nocturns is harrowed, and we are drawn into the wedding feast. It is only because Christ was the One who stopped by the side of the road where we had been beaten and robbed and left for dead as we were walking away from Jerusalem, that we have any right to approach. It is only because the highest good, like water, sought to inhabit the lowliest place, that we have any claim to the benefit bestowed without contention upon the myriad things.

As matters for philosophical speculation, divorced from Sayers’s Liturgical-minded ‘drama of the dogma’, I can see how both universalism and the massa damnata are potentially-dangerous beliefs to hold. But I can’t pretend I don’t have a ‘side’. The entirety of the Paschal Liturgy, up to and including the Paschal Homily of Chrysostom, is indeed precisely a plea for universal reconciliation in the divine drama – specifically as it pertains to me, the sinner. But what about the salvation of others, whether they are the worst of murderers, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, idolaters, heretics or schismatics? If I, who have come to the feast at the eleventh hour, am not standing behind the altar or behind the doors at Nocturns, it is not my place to decide who goes in and who stays out. It is with the humility of the ones in the tombs that I am called to approach the mystery of the Resurrection.
When You did descend to death, O Life Immortal,
You did slay hell with the splendor of Your Godhead,
And when from the depths You did raise the dead,
All the Powers of Heaven cried out,
O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You!

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