For Protestants one of the more obscure parts of the Christian tradition is the Harrowing of Hell.
The word "harrowing" comes from Old English word hergian which means to plunder, seize, or capture.
The Harrowing of Hell refers to Jesus' decent into hell to break down the gates of hell to release humanity from the captivity of the Devil.
The Harrowing of Hell appears to be referred to, if only obliquely, in a couple of passages.
For example, in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 Peter describes Jesus as having gone to "the realm of the dead":
Acts 2.27, 31What did Jesus do there in the realm of the dead? Passages in 1 Peter and Ephesians are used to answer this question:
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.
1 Peter 3.18-20aThe Ephesians text is ambiguous. Perhaps descending to the "lower, earthy regions" is simply a reference to the Incarnation and not the Harrowing of Hell. But 1 Peter seems to describe Jesus preaching the gospel to the dead, to "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago."
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago...
1 Peter 4.6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the import of the Harrowing of Hell in these texts for theologies of universal reconciliation.
Specifically, in many doctrinal systems death is believed to end your moral and spiritual biography with God. Your status--Saved versus Lost--is set and fixed at death. After death your relationship with God is set in concrete, never to be changed.
But the Harrowing of Hell, one of the oldest doctrines of the church, suggests otherwise. Death did not end the moral biography of the "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago." Death did not permanently fix an eternal fate. Christ's salvific pursuit of sinners continued after death.
For many theologies of universal reconciliation this is a key point of dispute with those who endorse eternal conscious torment, and even annihilationism. Is your relationship with God eternally fixed at the moment of death? Does God's salvific pursuit of sinners continue after death?
According to the Harrowing of Hell God pursues us, even after death.