Giles Fraser: Salvation is found in the pit of death

24 March 2010

THE Bishop of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, the Rt Revd Pierre Whalon, has just returned from a visit to Haiti. He preached at St Paul’s the other day, and came to lunch with us afterwards, where he told a story about how bad things are in Port-au-Prince.

He spoke of coming across an open pit of bodies that people were also using as a rubbish tip for house­hold refuse. All he wanted to do was climb down into the pit and clear out the rubbish. That is to be my abiding prayer thought for this year’s Holy Week.

Christ jumps into the pit of death to claim even the grave for his victory. With this last act, the victory over death, Christ is the Lord of all. There are no corners of human experience that cannot be redeemed by his love.

All of this is extremely redolent of that popular medieval theology known as the harrowing of hell. As the Apostles’ Creed puts it: Christ “was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.” Yet, despite this credal reference, modern Protestant­ism does not regard the descent into hell as a vital part of the economy of salvation. I suspect that it simply believes that its own very narrow penal reading of the atonement can shoulder all the work of salvation that is necessary.

And yet, in the Eastern Churches, where penal views of the atonement have never caught on, the idea of Christ’s descent into hell is central to the whole Easter story. Indeed, the image of Christ shattering the gates of hell and holding out a helping hand to Adam and Eve, bringing them out of the pit, is canonical in Orthodox iconography. Christ is life. In Christ, life triumphs over death. This, of course, is why the harrowing of hell is a natural companion to a Christus Victor theology of the atone­ment.

In contrast, I cannot see that penal substitution has very much to say to those living close by the stench of death in Haiti. To speak of Christ “paying the price of human sin” is not a convincing way to address the redemption of human misery and death that the streets of Port-au-Prince are crying out for. Here we need to learn from the Eastern Churches.

Macarius of Egypt puts it beauti­fully: “If the sun, being created, passes everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled.” God enters the pit of bodies, and emerges triumphant. Thanks be to God.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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