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New hope for lost sheep

28 March 2024

The original sinners are the first to benefit from Christ’s Passion, says Andrew Davison


The Harrowing of Hell (fresco) by Fra Angelico, c.1430s

The Harrowing of Hell (fresco) by Fra Angelico, c.1430s

WHO could be more damned than Adam and Eve — first of the lost, the wellsprings of perdition? That’s what I’d have said in my earlier years.

Encountering the Orthodox icon of the resurrection was quite a shock. It shows Christ, in the centre, pulling precisely that pair out of their tombs: Adam on one side, Eve on the other. Far from being archetypally damned, they are the first of the redeemed.

Although I found that unexpected, the idea turns out to be quite common. Adam appears in Dante’s Paradiso, not in his Inferno, telling the poet about how Christ rescued him. In Western art, like that Eastern icon, Christ’s Easter victory is shown this way: whether knocking down the gates of the underworld, or breaking the bars of its prison, or fishing the redeemed from the mouth of hell as from some dragon or monstrous fish, the first pair he rescues are Adam and Eve, often grasping them by the hand.

In Fra Angelico’s Harrowing of Hell, Christ has burst the door off its hinge (squashing the devil in the process), and it lies flat on the floor. The first five figures to be released have distinguishing features: David with a crown, Moses with his radiant “horns”, Abel with a wounded head, John the Baptist, and — at the head of the crowd — Adam, grasping Christ’s extended hand with both of his.


THE Orthodox liturgy for Easter resounds with this theme: “Having slept in the flesh, as a mortal, O King and Lord, on the third day Thou didst rise again, raising up Adam from corruption, and abolishing death: O Pascha of incorruption, salvation of the world!”

Irenaeus of Lyons — one of the Church’s earliest theologians of the foremost rank — dealt firmly with any denial that Adam had been redeemed: “Thus also do those who disallow Adam’s salvation gain nothing, except this, that they render themselves heretics and apostates from the truth, and show themselves patrons of the serpent and of death.” Tell us what you really think, Irenaeus!

Much nearer our own time, the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown (1921-96) has Christ descend step by step to the depths of Hades. At the bottom, he encounters “the tall primal dust” — Adam — who turns to him with a cry of joy. It is a remarkable poem, and all the more moving when we learn that Brown completed it in the final week of his life.


IRENAEUS thought it “absurd” to suppose that God would redeem Adam’s children but not Adam himself. That’s because he was so sure that Satan had been utterly defeated by Christ at Easter, so could not possibly be said to have retained his spoils, least of all the first of them. Ephrem the Syrian (who may win the crown as most creative of Christian hymn-writers) invoked the scene of Moses’s staff devouring the wands of the magicians; the Cross has devoured the serpent that ate Adam and Eve.

As Irenaeus has it, death really has been swallowed up in victory. “This could not be said with justice, if that man, over whom death did first obtain dominion, were not set free. For his salvation is death’s destruction. When therefore the Lord vivifies man, that is, Adam, death is at the same time destroyed.” The question, as far as Irenaeus is concerned, is simple. Did Christ triumph in cross and resurrection? If so, Adam is redeemed.


ACCORDING to one old legend, already familiar by the time of Jerome, Adam was buried on what would become Mount Calvary, or Golgotha. If you see a skull at the foot of the cross in a painting of the crucifixion, the chances are that it’s supposed to be Adam’s. Gregory Nazianzen wrote that one drop of Christ’s blood could redeem the world. In some paintings, a drop falls on Adam’s skull, setting him free.

Crucial in all of this is Adam’s status as representative: as primordial or “ur” human. Adam is humanity; humanity is Adam. That is particularly clear at the beginning of Genesis 5, where the fledgling human family tree is traced back to Adam. Only here, the Hebrew emphasises primordiality. While the AV gives us “Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam,” the NRSV has “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’.” That’s why we don’t always see Eve in these images or texts: there’s a way in which Adam stands for humanity, encompassing every difference, including male and female.


DID Christ redeem humanity? Then he redeemed Adam. At the heart of St Paul’s theology is his cry that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” If all are in the first Adam — if that “all” is Adam — then no less is Adam in that second “all”: those who are made alive. And don’t forget Paul’s remarkable message that “the free gift is not like the trespass,” by which he seems to mean something like “You think that sin is infectious? Wait until you see how expansive is the remedy!”

Adam’s representative meaning is also why scientific concerns are beside the point here. Perhaps there was some representative pair: the first human beings to stand before God with moral responsibility. If so, as Aquinas put it, humanity was in Adam “as one person”. But that isn’t the only way it could work. In all this theology, including Paul’s, “Adam” is the nature and state we have in common: a state and nature, not without glory and dignity, but mired in sin and a terrible predicament. Paul’s point is that it’s us Christ has come to save, our grave that he has broken open, us he takes by the hand.


THE rescue of Adam and Eve is at the heart of an ancient sermon, now quite famous because it features in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for Holy Saturday. It describes Christ raising Adam from Hades, proclaiming “Arise, O Sleeper, and wake from the death”: arise, because “I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. . . Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence.”

The sermon turns on the idea that Adam’s God has become Adam’s son so as to redeem him: “I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.”

The idea that Adam and Eve were redeemed is common enough in the West, although we have to look to the East to find it promoted to a place in the liturgy. The book of Wisdom (in the Apocrypha for Anglicans) was an influence, where we read: “Wisdom protected the first-formed father of the world, when he alone had been created; she delivered him from his transgression, and gave him strength to rule all things.”


A LOT is being said when Christ is depicted pulling Adam and Eve out of the jaws of the grave. For one thing, it suggests something important about the priority of grace: that God offers mercy and repentance to all. Right from the start, Tertullian wrote (in On Repentance), from the time when our first parents were ejected from paradise, God inaugurated “repentance in his own self . . . engaging to grant pardon to his own work and image”, forever exhorting us to repentance.

Irenaeus saw something hopeful in the shame that Adam and Eve felt, the beginning of repentance, since: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The curse, he wrote, lay more heavily upon the earth — and especially upon the serpent — than it did upon the human pair. And Christians have been encouraged to see the beginning and promise of the gospel, even in the enunciation of the curse: that Christ, the “seed” of Eve, would crush the serpent’s head.

From the beginning, there is hope, however obtuse human beings can be. God is never without witnesses to his mercy, and the door stands open.


ACCORDING to Irenaeus, Adam is the ultimate lost sheep — because the first to go astray — and Irenaeus was certain of God’s disposition towards lost sheep. What hope there is in that! As the ancient sermon has it, “Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.”

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”: even on Adam, even on Eve — especially on Adam and Eve.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and currently a Visiting Fellow of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, in the United States.

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