"For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey..." I Peter, chapter 3
It's a tantalizing little passage there in I Peter. And it certainly made a big impression on the early Church, which discerned in this mysterious comment an event that would come to be known as the Harrowing of Hell: The pre-resurrected Jesus preaching to the souls in hell, and making salvation available to them as well.
The Harrowing of Hell is an appealing image that can answer a couple of theological questions; namely, where was Jesus and what was he doing between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection; and what do you do, soteriologically, with persons who lived before the time of Jesus, if your thesis is that saving faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation? And if you think of heaven and hell as states existing outside the boundaries of linear time, you can also think of the Harrowing of Hell as an eternal rescue mission on Christ's part -- rescue for the militantly God-hostile; the clueless; those whose only exposure to the Gospel in life had been a distorted, abusive one, and rejected that.
(The fundamentalists I know hate the concept of the Harrowing of Hell, because it messes with their operating principle that for God it's all about The Rules. And, frankly, if you think you're following The Rules, why would you want God handing out Get Out of Jail Free cards to people who didn't follow The Rules?)
Frankly, I don't know what I think. I find myself so preoccupied with the implications of my relationship with Christ in this life that I don't spend a great deal of time thinking about the next one -- I trust Christ's promise that I will be with Christ, and don't overthink it beyond that, because that sounds like a good gig to me. And I reject the do-not-pass-go-directly-to-hell sentence of condemnation pronounced in some corners of Christendom upon "pagan babies" and others who, in the words of the liturgy, know not the Lord. But I think that the Harrowing of Hell is a story, an idea, that conveys an enduring hope in the Christian community that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- can separate us from the love of God in Christ; and that no one is too far removed from the reach of Christ's redeeming love. That's the Christ we've met this week who stretched out his arms in love upon the cross.
"The Harrowing of Hell," Caparroso, St. Mary's Cathedral, Pamploma