Christ's Descent Into Hell and the Healing of Trauma

#Christology #CarlJung #trauma #theology

The doctrine of Christ's descent into hell is not an archaic superstition, an obscure facet of Catholic and Eastern Christianity, or an irrelevant line in the creed. Christ's victory over the forces of hell is a profound truth with mystical significance for the redemption of our souls — especially when we recognize that Christ's victory is not only cosmic but personal as well. The same power of Christ that descended into hell is likewise active in descending into the deepest and most hellish places of our souls, bringing divine liberation, triumph, and healing. In this essay, I will utilize Carl Jung's interpretation of the underworld motif to analyze the doctrine of Christ's descent into hell as an archetype for how Christ descends into our unconscious.

The Harrowing of Hades

The doctrine of Christ's descent into hell, or the harrowing of hell/hades as it is sometimes called, teaches that after Jesus' crucifixion and before his resurrection, he descended into the realm of the dead, commonly referred to as “hell” or “hades,” to proclaim his victory over sin and death. The primary scriptural basis for this doctrine is found in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6.

1 Peter 3:18-20 says: “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, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight lives, were saved through water.”

1 Peter 4:6 says: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”

These passages mention that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison, implying a journey to the realm of the dead. Additionally, in the Apostles' Creed, there is a line that affirms Jesus' descent into hell or hades.

The purpose of Christ's descent into Hell is interpreted differently among Christian traditions. Some view it as a triumph over evil and the Devil, while others see it as an act of liberation, freeing the righteous souls who were awaiting salvation. Others even hold it as a basis for belief in the eventual, universal salvation of all. In other words, hell exists, but it's now empty. The theological significance of this event varies, and not all Christian denominations hold it as a central doctrine. Some see it as more literal, and others read it more metaphorically.

Christ's victory over hell is, at the very least, a true myth. By “myth,” I do not mean a lie or a tall tale. Instead, I mean it in the more technical sense, which refers to a people group's deepest sense of meaning, wisdom, and understanding of the world placed into narrative form. Or, as Alan Moore described, a myth is what happens when a story transcends what it means to be a story and it becomes something universal.

For clarity's sake, I'm not denying that Christ actually descended into hell. But I must admit that I have no idea what that event would look like, played out in real-time. Unfortunately, Jesus didn't have a camcorder with him.

But if we get too caught up in trying to create a mental image in our mind of what that camcorder footage would look like, then we might end up missing the deeper, mystical insight of what Christ's victory over hell means. Thus, to help us apply the harrowing of hell, I will turn to the great theorist of myth himself, Carl Jung.

Jung and the Archetype of the Underworld

Carl Jung spent much of his research analyzing and theorizing about common mythological motifs found in stories across different cultures. He utilized the term “archetype” to describe the fundamental, inherited patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and symbols that manifest in various forms, such as myths, dreams, and fantasies. The descent into the underworld is one such archetype that appears in myths and stories across different cultures.

According to Jung, the descent into the underworld represents a psychological journey of self-discovery and transformation. It symbolizes a confrontation with the unconscious, where individuals encounter hidden aspects of their psyche, including repressed emotions, desires, and fears. The descent can be seen as a metaphorical exploration of the depths of the human psyche, a quest for self-understanding, and a confrontation with the shadow — the dark and often neglected or suppressed aspects of the self.

Jung saw this descent as an essential step in the process of individuation, which is the psychological integration and development of the self. By confronting and integrating the unconscious aspects of the psyche, individuals can achieve a more balanced and whole sense of self. Or, as the great philosopher Dolly Parton said, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

The descent into the underworld often involves encountering powerful mythological figures, such as demons, monsters, or gods. These figures represent different aspects of the unconscious and can be seen as symbolic manifestations of the individual's inner struggles, challenges, and potential for transformation.

If we were to apply a Jungian analysis to the Biblical witness of Christ's descent into the underworld, we create the image of Christ descending into the “hellish” places of our souls to bring victory over that which holds us captive and separate from God. Such a reading would be keeping in line with what the ancient church fathers, such as Augustine and Origen, called an analogous or spiritual reading. These hermeneutical strategies involve taking the truths of scripture and reading them as allegories for the life of faith, such as other doctrines or possible pastoral insight. It is not to deny that Christ ever descended into hell. Rather, it is to take the external teachings of sacred scripture and actions of the divine, and then apply those realities into the interiority of our souls.

If you don't mind a quick, possibly deviating side-note, I'm reminded of a scene in the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Elrond, the leader of the elves, visits Aragorn and hands him the sword of his ancestors that had been reforged and reminds Aragorn of his birthright to be king of Gondor. Elrond says to Aragorn, “I give hope to men.” Aragorn, recognizing his continued trepidation regarding his rightful place on the throne, replies, “I leave none for myself.” Analogous or spiritual reading can be this act of leaving hope for oneself or one's community.

The importance of leaving hope for oneself is especially pertinent for ministering to trauma victims. It's certainly possible to read Christ's descent into the underworld of the unconscious as representing the process of sanctification — the process whereby the Holy Spirit makes one holy. Such a reading is perfectly acceptable. But I believe we must also use Christ's descent into hell as a form of trauma-informed ministry.

The Harrowing of Trauma

Trauma refers to an experience that is too horrifying to be fully processed by the brain. I often liken it to Lovecraftian horror, where extra-dimensional alien creatures are so totally “Other,” monstrous, and horrifying that they exceed the cognitive capacities of the protagonists, often resulting in madness. Trauma is an experience of this sort of terror. But in order to keep us from going mad, the brain will turn off certain functions and, to use a rough analogy, break apart the experience and hide it within the deep crevices of the psyche (what Jung called the shadow), so that the trauma is not experienced in its entirety. In a positive light, this is the brain's strategy for survival which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing. However, because that trauma often remains hidden within the underground of the psyche, it goes unprocessed and unintegrated, thus producing symptoms that can have a negative impact on one's life. Much of trauma-informed therapy involves this strategy of re-processing, in a now healthy and safe manner, those earlier experiences of trauma so that it no longer lingers in the psyche.

Hopefully, we can see where this all connects to Christ's descent into the unconscious. The pockets of trauma residing within one's soul are often experienced as hellish places — areas in our lives where the forces of death seek to have control. But in Christ's descent into hell, we see an image of victory over these forces. That which we believe is irredeemable and alienating is defeated and restored. It is the healing redemption of God permeating the deepest parts of our souls.

To clarify, I fully support trauma-informed therapy, and I am not advocating for forsaking all medical treatment to follow a “pray away your pain” model of healing. Humans are made to be in community and meant to act as Christ would to our neighbors. Thus, I believe trauma-informed therapy, such as EMDR work, is actually playing out this divine intention and ministry. But in addition to being a good neighbor to one another, I believe healing is more successful when we can locate ourselves within a grander, archetypal narrative, and Christ's descent into hell seems like a reasonable fit.