My favorite icon (those ancient pictures which Christians in the Orthodox East use as instruments of worship) is called “The Harrowing of Hell”. It depicts Jesus coming out of the tomb - not gently, but leaping, his robe fluttering behind him in the wind almost like a kind of Superman’s cape! Scattered all around him are the broken down doors, the shattered wood, and the broken locks and hinges of hell itself. With one hand he is grasping Adam and with another he is holding on to Eve, and a whole crew of people are scurrying out behind him. He has just conquered hell and freed its captives.
When the Apostle John was in exile on the Isle of Patmos he had a vision of the risen Lord who told him, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1.18). From whence did he get those keys? Well, he got them from death and hell and the grave - when he descended there in his own death. While he was in hell he not only experienced the depths of human death, he not only preached to those who were there, he also conquered the evil powers! Paul writes, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2.15).
The early Church Fathers have seen this descent into hell as a fulfillment of Job 40.1, where God asks Job, “Who can capture with a hook the great sea monster Leviathan [the Dragon]?” In his descent into hell, as a human, Jesus “tricked” the trickster, the devil, that old serpent, the dragon. Saint Cyprian wrote, “The divine power of God’s son was a kind of fishhook hidden by the covering of human flesh”. Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “...the deceiver reaps the harvest of the seeds he sowed with his own free will. For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature...”! John of Damascus explained it like this: “Wherefore death approaches, and swallowing up the body as a bait is transfixed on the hook of divinity, and after tasting of the sinless and life-giving body, perishes, and brings up again all whom of old he swallowed up. For just as darkness disappears on the introduction of light, so is death repulsed before the assault of life, and brings life to all, but death to the destroyer”.
Do you see the brilliance of this strategic move? Satan rejoices in the death of Jesus, and the demons of hell celebrate his descent into their territory! But the shouts of joy soon turn to howls of terror when they realize that the One among them is himself Life and Light that cannot be extinguished! To put it another way, hells gates are broken down from the inside out! The great reversal has begun.
(From Chapter Five, What Christians Believe by Kenneth N. Myers)
To order Bishop Kenneth's book go to his website - www.kennethmyers.net
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May we never be the same!