You go to Heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?
The traditional option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, and everything you experience can only increase that joy. Furthermore, you participate in God’s omniscience and have a direct and intimate knowledge of your family being tormented across the southern border. For these reasons, you experience sublime delight and sadistic pleasure as you witness your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you watch your loved ones brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity: Dignum et Iustum est. You consider it strictly essential to build and maintain an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell,1 and in the upcoming 2021 divine election you will only vote for an angelic candidate who runs his campaign on the promise that he will force the damned to pay for said chasm.
The heroin addiction option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply do not care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer care about anything other than your own pleasure and bliss. Nothing can be allowed to subtract from your hard-earned heavenly reward, and therefore you happily consent to undergo a spiritual lobotomy so as to remain completely unaware of those who were not so fortunate. Ignorance is bliss; bliss is heaven. No need to for you to worry about the fate of your family, let alone all those other riff-raff clamouring at the border for St. Peter to allow them through the gates of paradise.
The loving and charitable option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.
Which response sounds the most Christian to you?
Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to popular positions on the issue in Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Mormonism2 respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica:3
It is written: “The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge.” Further, it is written: “They shall satiate the sight of all flesh.” Now satiety denotes refreshment of the mind. Therefore the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked.
A thing may be a matter of rejoicing in two ways. First directly, when one rejoices in a thing as such: and thus the saints will not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked. Secondly, indirectly, by reason namely of something annexed to it: and in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy. And thus the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed: and the punishment of the damned will cause their joy indirectly.4
Due to the high prestige enjoyed by Aquinas and the quasi-magisterial status which contemporary Catholics tend to bestow on his writings, this stance on the diplomatic relations between Heaven and Hell has garnered significant support among theologically astute lay people, clerics and theologians.
The second option is a common position taken by evangelicals, considered broadly, however some Calvinists also tend towards the first alternative. I will not dwell on this option in this paper.
The third option has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday – and I will meditate on this further below – however it has received its most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
In this paper I will examine the Latter Day Saint doctrine of “Afterlife ministry” and argue that – despite its seeming novelty to non-Mormons – it is the logical offspring of two mainline Christian doctrines: The Harrowing of Hell and Salvation as Theosis.
The Latter Day Saint Doctrine of Afterlife Ministry
The core scriptural basis in the LDS canon for the doctrine of afterlife ministry is to be found in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 138. There have also been many other LDS magisterial writings and pronouncements on the topic, however for this paper I will restrict my survey to the LDS standard works.
The 6th President of the LDS Church – Joseph F. Smith5 – recalls how he was reflecting on Holy Saturday (specifically the minimal account as described in the second Petrine Epistle), and wondering how Christ could have possibly preached to all the spirits in prison:
And I wondered at the words of Peter—wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah—and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time. And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to fall the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.6
As can be seen in verse 30, Joseph Smith recounts how his “eyes were opened” and he “perceived” that Christ sent missionaries to the damned. Smith here records an understanding that Christ was not alone in his mission to “the spirits in prison.” Rather, Christ “organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority … to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness.” Smith goes on to elaborate:
And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.7
Smith here fleshes out the details of what exactly the missionary activity to the damned involves. It apparently involves – among other things – a robust education in correct doctrine.
And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross. Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh; That they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words.8
Smith continues to describe how – as a result of this afterlife ministry – all people (both righteous and unrighteous) are provided with all that they need to know in order to make an informed choice for or against Christ.
The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation. Thus was the vision of the redemption of the dead revealed to me, and I bear record, and I know that this record is true, through the blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, even so. Amen.9
Finally, Smith makes it clear that just as salvation requires obedience during this life, so too salvation requires obedience in the afterlife. This is important for Latter Day Saints due to their strong emphasis on the doctrine of free agency. Mormons and Catholics alike are united in the conviction that God can not and will not force anyone to be saved, and that salvation is an offer that must be freely accepted.
So in summary, the LDS doctrine is that in the afterlife the righteous saints who successfully made it to heaven will be organised by Christ into missionary squads, after which they will descend into Hell/Purgatory and proclaim the gospel to both those who are invincibly ignorant (ie, those who never received a theological education sufficient to make an informed decision for or against Christ) as well as those who have rejected Christ. In this way, the gospel is preached to all, and all receive another chance after death – even the damned are ministered to.10
The doctrine might sound strange to Catholic ears, but arguably it is compatible with the more mainstream and traditional expressions of Christian doctrine, such as found in Catholicism. To pursue that lead, we turn to a meditation on Theosis.
Salvation in the eastern churches is conceptualised in terms of theosis. In the western churches this concept is often referred to by the term “divinization,” but it is not a commonly known doctrine in the west, and it is eastern Christendom which has most fully developed the idea. Theosis is neatly summed up by a couplet attributed to various of the church fathers: “God became man so that man might become God.” There is a sense in which salvation consists of becoming God. However theologians are careful to emphasise that we become God by participation in the life of the Trinity; we do not become God by alteration of our nature. In an analogous way to how Christ had a totally divine nature and a totally human nature, it can be argued that we too will have both divine and human natures once we are saved.11
There are different levels of theosis, just as there are different levels of participation in the life of the Trinity. What does it mean to share in the life of the Trinity? I propose that this is simply to experience a finite share in the infinite attributes of God. A saint shares in God’s power, knowledge, presence, benevolence and so on, but to a finite degree.
However, more importantly for this paper, theosis is arguably a participation in and reflection of Christ himself. To be like God is to be like Christ, and in the Gospels Christ invites us to follow him, and outlines his method in order for us to do so. Famously, Christ tells us to “take up our cross,” just as he takes up his cross. To die a Christlike death is therefore arguably one tangible expression of theosis. In Catholic theology, Christ is often spoken of as “Prophet, Priest and King,” and it is emphasised that every Christian participates in these three offices. Just as Christ is a prophet, Christians are called to be prophets; just as Christ is a priest, Christians are called to be a kingdom of priests; and just as Christ is a king, every Christian is called to participate in his reign. The exact details of how individual Christians manifest their participation in these offices are different from case to case.
I would now like to propose that Christians are called to participate in all aspects of Christ’s life and ministry, and that therefore, Christians are called to participate in Holy Saturday, aka The Harrowing of Hades. But first, what exactly is this doctrine?
Harrowing of Hell
The contemporary Catholic position on the doctrine of Christ’s descent to Hell is discussed in the Catechism paragraphs 631 to 637:
Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.12
As can be clearly seen in this paragraph, the Catholic church explicitly13 teaches that Christ’s descent to Hell was not a rescue mission directed towards the damned, and Christ supposedly only descended to Hell in order to rescue only the righteous who lived prior to Christ; those “Holy souls, who await their saviour in Abraham’s bosom.” So in a dramatic twist the Catholic church appears to be teaching the exact opposite of what Christ himself claims in Luke 5:31-32.14 Further, in this basic understanding of the descent, Holy Saturday was nothing more than a one time event – Christ descended just to tie up some loose ends – and under this understanding the doctrine of the decensus ad infernum does not appear to have much – if any – relevance for Catholics today.
The Catechism also outlines the other popular interpretation of the doctrine; namely, Christ’s salvific work was already complete by the time of the descent and therefore the only possible purpose of the descent would be for Christ to announce his victory to the dead:
The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.15
So the standard Catholic teaching is more or less that Christ descended to the dead only once, for the purpose of rescuing righteous pagans and the holy fathers and patriarchs of Israel that lived before Christ. Beyond this, the doctrine has no real significance for a Christian today.16
As it turns out, the earliest fathers (particularly in the east) had a more profound take on the doctrine of the descensus. For example, examine the following extract from St. John Chrysostom’s famous Easter homily – which has been officially incorporated into the Byzantine Divine Liturgy:
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into hell, he made hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.17
Notice the highlighted sections of the homily. Chrysostom (and any Christian attending a church which prays the Byzantine Liturgy) quite clearly and powerfully proclaims here that Hell was completely abolished by Christ’s descent. This text clearly states that not one dead remains in the grave. It is usual for Catholics that are committed to a final distinction between saved and damned to push back against this with an attempt to water down the rhetoric; they will claim that the text is only referring to the universal resurrection, and Christ is not spoken of here as saving the damned. This is however extremely unlikely in light of the completely and utterly triumphant tone of the homily; it would be quite strange for the preacher to be proclaiming the universal resurrection in such a victorious tone if in actual fact some/most/many of the souls rescued from the grave are simplybeing resurrected to a fate worse than death.
It seems far more reasonable to take the homily at face value: Christ descended to Hell for the purpose of saving everyone; he descended to the grave so as to completely empty it of both saints and sinners. The descent was indeed the proclamation of Christ’s victory, but this proclamation is kerygmatic and therefore able to save those who hear it. The descent was not Christ gloating at sinners by proclaiming to them a salvation which they will never access; rather the descent was a rescue mission. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the descent was not a one time event, but rather has a timeless dimension to it. Arguably all who die – whether before Christ or after – are affected by Holy Saturday; Arguably this is exactly why St. Chrysostom’s homily is read every Easter in the Byzantine churches; Holy Saturday is a reality right here and now, and rather than being restricted to a handful of righteous pagans and Jews who lived before Christ, the descent has relevance for all people; both sinners and saints, both the living and the dead.
Lets now tie all of this together. If the doctrine of theosis implies both that saints experience a finite participation in the divine attributes, and also that they participate directly in Christ himself by reflecting and continuing his mission, then surely this implies that all Christian saints participate in Holy Saturday, and therefore all Christian saints are called to participate in the descent to Hell. If Christians are called to die as Christ died and live as Christ lived; and if Christians are called by Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me;”18 might not this divine calling to become Christ-like also encompass a personal descent to Hell for each Christian? Further, if Christ’s descent to Hell was indeed a rescue mission to save both the righteous and the damned, surely each individual Christian saint is obliged by their salvific theosis to participate in that same rescue mission.
Look at this famous “Catholic” passage from scripture:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of Hell shall not prevail against it.19
In usual discussion of this verse, it is assumed that the “Church” is a fortress and the powers of Hell are laying siege to it. However a more literal translation brings out the original nuances:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will gather my assembly, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.20
In this rendition, it is clear that things are the other way around: Hell is the prison fortress, and the church is an assembly: an army. When Christ says he is going to build his church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, the image is more accurately that of Christ the king, Peter the general, and a vast and growing army of saints, all of them together orchestrating a holy war against the forces of Hell and laying siege to the front gates of the infernal prison.
This more direct interpretation lines up quite nicely with the doctrine of Holy Saturday, and the Mormon doctrine of afterlife ministry. Christ has built – and is still building – an army of saints. This army of saints is waging warfare against Hell, and attempting to orchestrate a cosmic prison break. The damned souls who are stuck behind the gates of Hell can do nothing to save themselves, and can only prayerfully wait for Christ and his army of saints to break down the gates of their hellish prison and rescue them. But there is good news: Christ proclaims that the gates of hell will not prevail, and this is cause for great hope.
It can therefore be seen how the Mormon doctrine of afterlife ministry is not so far-fetched after all. Christ is building his army of saints, and both he and his army are on a rescue mission to break into Hell and rescue everyone from the clutches of the demonic prison masters. But the gates of Hell will not prevail, and in fact there is a powerful sense in which the universal rescue mission is guaranteed to be a success. As Chrysostom preached:
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in Hell.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911-1925.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997.
2Officially “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”
3Admittedly St. Thomas’ formulation is more technical and less emotive than the version I outlined earlier, which apparently quite successfully takes the edge off its inherent ugliness in the eyes of many Catholics
4Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911-1925), IIIa Suppl. q. 94, arts 3.
5As opposed to the Prophet Joseph Smith who started the Latter Day Saint movement as a whole
10As an aside, there are strong parallels with the bodhisattva vow made by some Mahayana Buddhists. Such Buddhists promise to descend back into saṃsāra to rescue all who are trapped in the clutches of worldly passion, vice and suffering. These spiritual warriors vow to refrain from dissolving into the bliss of mahāparinirvāṇa until universal salvation has been achieved. They promise to continue to descend back into the world again and again to teach divine love and compassion to those in darkness, until all have finally been saved.
11Important to note that Christ is essentially divine and only secondarily human, whereas we would be essentially human and only secondarily divine. The common ablative tossed around is that we will be divine by participation.
12Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 633.
13Although arguably not dogmatically
14“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to save the righteous, but sinners.”
15Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 632.
16It should also be mentioned that there is a minority report among Catholics – influenced by Reformed thinkers – which claims that Christ’s descent to Hell was a suffering descent, wherein Christ actually suffered the full penalty for all sins ever committed. In the Catholic camp this position is primarily associated with Hans Urs Von Balthasar. It is a theologumenon with much merit, and any serious theologian who wants to construct a contemporary dogmatics of Holy Saturday should wrestle with Von Balthasar’s thought.
17St. John Chrysostom, Paschal Homily.
Johnny is a Bishop, Heretic, Prophet, Priest, Apostle and ASM (Ascended Spiritual Master). On his good days he is often also the one true almighty God incarnate. He enjoys writing theology and philosophy articles and spreading the Gospel promise of Universal Salvation