Christian hope for release from Hell

Christian hope for release from Hell starts with personal repentance. A call for repentance apparently composed in central Europe in the seventh or eighth century was an abecedarius. That’s a poem in which successive stanzas begin with successive letters of the alphabet, abc… . This Latin abecedarius was about the fundamentals. It probably made young men uncomfortable:

You are audacious, young man.
While your pliant flesh boils upward,
you audaciously act wrongly.
You defile your limbs.

Remember, human, you are dust
and to dust you shall return.

Time is short, young one.
Consider that you will die
and that the last day is coming
and you will lose your finest bloom.

Remember, human, you are dust
and to dust you shall return.

In acquiescing to your flesh,
you deceive your soul.
While you bow to lust,
you remain wickedly deceived.

Remember, human, you are dust
and to dust you shall return.

{ Audax es, uir iuuenis,
dum feruet caro mobilis;
audacter agis perperam
tua membra coinquinas.

Adtende, homo, quia puluis es
et in puluerem reuerteris.

Breue est tempus, iuuenis,
considera, quod morieris
uenitque dies ultimus
et perdes florem optimum.

Adtende, homo, quia puluis es
et in puluerem reuerteris.

Carni tue consentiens
animam tuam decipis;
dum flecteris ad libidinem,
male deceptus remanes.

Adtende, homo, quia puluis es
et in puluerem reuerteris. }[1]

Misdirected desire can lead a person to Hell. So too can murder, stealing, idolatry, dishonoring one’s parents, and other sins.

Christ entering Hell

From a Christian perspective, Jesus Christ conquered sin and death. Moreover, sin and death are closely associated. They lead to Hell without Christ. An Easter play probably composed in central Europe early in the twelfth century describes Christ conquering Hell. He did that accompanied by angels and singing:

Then two angels, singing, precede Jesus to Hell:

When Christ, the King of Glory, entered Hell to conquer it, a chorus of angel preceding him gave orders that the rulers’ gates be penetrated. The holy people held captive in death cried out in a tearful voice: “Alleluia! Christ has risen and brought light to his people, for he has redeemed them with his blood!”

{ Tunc duo angeli precedentes Iesum ad infernum cantant:

Cum rex gloriae Christus infernum debellaturus intraret, et chorus angelicus ante faciem eius portas principum tolli praeciperet, sanctorum populus, qui tenebatur in morte captivus, voce lacrimabili clamaverat: Alleluia! Surrexit Christus et illuxit populo suo, quem redemit sanguine suo. }[2]

Do the holy people held captive in death include all persons who died before Christ rose? That’s a matter of Christian theological controversy. Medieval theologians divided Hell into two sections. In a section known as limbo, those who died without Christ, but who are worthy to be saved, await Christ descending to them. In another place, unrepentant evil-doers not having souls worthy of saving burn eternally in torment. Some persons hope that Christ leaves no souls in Hell. Others hope that the torments of Hell are eternal and especially brutal for mass murderers like Adolf Hitler.[3] No one knows the mind of God for certain, even those who believe that God is only the product of the minds of others throughout history.

The play The Harrowing of Hell in the Towneley Cycle, composed in England probably in the fourteenth century, explicitly indicates that Jesus leaves some souls to eternal damnation in Hell. Satan appears as a character in that play. When Jesus condemns Satan to Hell eternally, Satan pleads for Jesus to grant him some company there in perpetuity. Jesus promises that the following will remain forever with Satan in Hell: Cain, who killed his brother Abel; Judas, who betrayed Jesus; Ahitophel, who betrayed King David and supported Absalom’s rebellion; David and Abiram, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron; and “all who will not learn my law {all that will not lere my law}.” Satan was pleased:

Now here’s my hand in agreement. I consider myself paid.
These points are plainly for my profit.
If this be true what you have said,
I shall have more souls here than I have now.

{ Now here my hand, I hold me payde;
Thise poyntys ar playnly for my prow.
If this be trew that thou has saide,
We shall have mo then we have now. }[4]

But Jesus, whose is generally regarded as at least a nice guy, has as his final words in this play:

Come now forth, my children all.
I forgive you your sins.
With me now you shall go
to joy and endless bliss.

{ Com now furth, my childer all.
I forgyf you youre mys;
With me now go ye shall
To joy and endles blys. }

Perhaps Jesus changed his mind about everyone except Satan. But the play doesn’t explicitly say that.

Jesus conquered Hell. Adapting a description of righteous persons entering the Lord’s temple in Psalm 24, the twelfth-century Latin Easter play included the following scene:

Jesus comes to the gates of Hell and, finding them closed, sings:

Lift up your gates, you rulers, and you, everlasting gates, rise, and the king of glory will enter!

Then the devil says:
Who is this king of glory?

Jesus says:
The Lord, strong and powerful; the Lord, powerful in battle.

After repeating this three times, Jesus with a great charge shatters the gates of Hell.

{ Iesus veniens ad portas inferni et inveniens eas clausas cantat:
Tollite portas, principes, vestras, et elevamini, portae aeternales, et introibit rex gloriae.

Tunc diabolus:
Quis est iste rex gloriae?

Iesus:
Dominus fortis et potens, Dominus potens in proelio.

Hoc ter repetito Iesus magno impetu tandem confringit portas inferni. }[5]

In the Towneley Easter play, Jesus is less militant. Before the gate of Hell he declares:

You princes of Hell, open your gate
and let my folk go forth.
A prince of peace shall enter there
whether you allow it or not.

{ Ye prynces of hell, open youre yate
And let my folk furth gone;
A prynce of peasse shall enter therat
Wheder ye will or none. }[6]

This prince of peace is only vaguely threatening. His words are self-enacting:

This place shall no longer stand closed.
Open up and let my people pass!

{ This stede shall stand no longer stokyn;
Open up and let my pepill pas. }

At those words of Jesus, the gate of Hell burst open. God rules not only all the earth, but Hell, too.

Liberation from Hell prompts joy and love of God. The great Hebrew leader Moses and the great Hebrew prophet Isaiah conclude the Towneley Easter play:

Moses:
Make mirth, everyone both great and small,
and may we love our Lord
who has brought us from bitterness
to abide in bliss for all time.

Isaiah:
Therefore now let us sing
in love for our Lord Jesus.
Unto his bliss he will us bring!

{ Moses:
Make myrth, both more and les,
And love oure Lord we may
That has broght us fro bytternes
In blys to abyde, for ay.

Isaiah:
Therfor now let us syng
To love oure Lord Jesus;
Unto his blys he will us bryng }

In the twelfth-century Latin Easter play, the unnamed occupants of Hell sing about specific, common experiences of human suffering:

You have come, longed-for one, to us who have waited for you in darkness. We have waited for you to lead us, shackled, out of our prison on this night. Our sighs summoned you, and our continual torment called out to you. You are made hope for the desperate, a great comfort for those in torment.

{ Advenisti, desiderabilis, quem expectabamus in tenebris, ut educeres hac nocte vinculatos de claustris. Te nostra vocabant suspiria; te larga requirebant tormenta; tu factus es spes desperatis, magna consolatio in tormentis. }[7]

Hell isn’t just some abstract place for some souls after death. Persons experience Hell right here on earth.

Christ releasing captives from Hell

From a Christian perspective, release from Hell is enacted continually in history on every Easter of the year and every moment of every person’s life in which she or he returns to God with a sincere heart. Release from Hell renews the earth in a resurrection poem from sixth-century western Europe:

Greetings festive day, revered through the ages,
the day when God defeated Hell and reached the stars.

Behold, the grace of the world reborn attests
that all gifts have returned with their Lord.

Greetings festive day, revered through the ages,
the day when God defeated Hell and reached the stars.

So returning from the gloomy underworld, Christ triumphant
everywhere woods with foliage and meadows with flowers applaud.

Greetings festive day, revered through the ages,
the day when God defeated Hell and reached the stars.

The laws of Hell crushed, God moving above the stars
rightly praise light, firmament, fields, and seas.

{ Salve, festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo
Qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet.

Ecce renascentis testatur gratia mundi
Omnia cum Domino dona redisse suo.

Salve, festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo
Qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet.

Namque triumphanti post tristia tartara Christo
Undique fronde nemus gramina flore favent.

Salve, festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo
Qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet.

Legibus inferni oppressis super astra meantem,
Laudant rite Deum lux, polus, arva, fretum. }[8]

Remember, human, you are dust. You are substance of the ground that sustains woods with foliage and meadows with flowers. You greet the sea at shores. Repent, save yourself, and save the world.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] “Verses on Contempt for the World {Versus de contemptu mundi}” / “On the Chastity of Young Men {De castitate iuvenum},” stanzas 1-3, with refrain. Latin text (simplified presentation) and English translation (modified) from Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 18, edition of Ziolkowski (1994).

This poem survives in nine manuscripts, with the earliest dating from the end of the eighth century. The refrain comes from Genesis 3:19 and is part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy in Christian churches.

The preceding poem in Carmina cantabrigiensia is a lament upon the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, who died in 1024. It associates the death of Henry II with the need for communal repentance:

Let us lament our sins, friends,
let us lament and wail. Why are we silent?
On account of iniquity we have sunk far and wide into ruin;
we know the immeasurable king of heaven has been offended by this.

{ Lamentemur nostra, socii, peccata;
lamentemur et ploremus. quare tacemus?
pro iniquitate corruimus late;
scimus celi hinc offensum regem inmensum. }

Carmina cantabrigiensia 17, vv. 1-4, Latin text and English translation from Ziolkowski (1994). This lament survives only in Carmina cantabrigiensia.

[2] Carmina Burana 15 additional, “Here begins a play, or rather an exemplum, about the Lord’s resurrection {Incipit ludus, immo exemplum, dominicae resurrectionis},” 179, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). The play from line 124 to the end is missing in the Carmina Burana. Traill took the Latin text from the Klosterneuburg Easter Play, which he judged to be the source for the Carmina Burana Easter play. Id. vol. 2, p. 731. On the origin of Easter plays, Young (1914).

[3] The question of whether Hell is empty has attracted considerable recent debate. See, e.g. Bruce (2001), Chalk (2019), Santos (2021).

[4] The Towneley Plays 22, “The Harrowing of Hell,” vv 353-6, Middle English text from Epp (2017), my English modernization. The previous short quote and subsequent quote above are similarly from this play, v. 341 (all that will not lere my law) and vv. 373-6 (Now here my hand…).

[5] Carmina Burana 15 additional, “Incipit ludus, immo exemplum, dominicae resurrectioni,” 180-2, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Christian thinkers from the second century believed that Christ saved worthy persons who had come before him. Cf. 1 Peter 4:6. Adapting Psalm 24 to Christ’s harrowing of Hell exists in the fifth-century Gospel of Nicodemus. On these lines in medieval drama, Young (1933) vol. 2, pp. 149-2. On the descent theme in medieval Latin hymns, Messenger (1936).

[6] The Towneley Plays 22, “The Harrowing of Hell,” vv 197-200, Middle English text from Epp (2017), my English modernization. Cf. Exodus 5.1. The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from this play, vv.209-10 (This place shall no longer stand closed…) and vv. 409-15 (Moses….).

[7] Carmina Burana 15 additional, “Incipit ludus, immo exemplum, dominicae resurrectioni,” 183, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018).

[8] Venatius Fortunatus, Carmina 3.9, incipit “The days glow red distinguished with flower-bearing, mild weather {Tempora florigero rutilant distincta sereno},” excerpted and re-arranged to form “Greetings festive day, revered though the ages {Salve, festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo},” stanzas 1-3, with refrain, Latin text (with classical spelling) and English translation (modified) from Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 22, edition of Ziolkowski (1994). This version of Venatius’s poem was well-established by the tenth century. On its history, Messenger (1947).

[images] (1) Christ descending into Hell. Painting probably from the late sixteenth century by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Christ releasing captives from Hell. Manuscript illumination made about 1190–1200, probably in East Anglia, England. Excerpt from folio 82v of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101.

References:

Bruce, Richard. c. 2001. “Is Hell Empty? My Comments on The New Oxford Review vs. First Things Debate.” Online.

Chalk, Casey. 2019. “Hell Is Real—and It Isn’t Empty.” Crises Magazine: A Voice fro the Faithful Catholic Laity. October 9. 2019, online.

Epp, Garrett, ed. 2017. The Towneley Plays. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications.

Messenger, Ruth Ellis. 1936. “The Descent Theme in Medieval Latin Hymns.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 67: 126-147.

Messenger, Ruth Ellis. 1947. “Salve Festa Dies.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 78: 208-222.

Santos, Julian. 2021. “Is Hell Empty?INFLAME Catholic. Online.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Young, Karl. 1914. “The Origin of the Easter Play.” PMLA / Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 29 (1): 1-58.

Young, Karl. 1933. The Drama of the Medieval Church. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

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