The Harrowing of Hell and the Church Militant

In the Apostles Creed the Church professes the belief that when Jesus died upon the cross He descended into Hell. That idea may make some people uncomfortable. But it is an ancient belief that Jesus descended into Hell not as a victim, damned for all eternity, but as a conquering hero.

Jesus stormed Hell, trampling its gates underfoot to bind the “strong man” and release the souls of the righteous, trapped there since the first days.

The traditional icon of the “Harrowing of Hell” shows Jesus, standing on top of the collapsed gates which lie in the shape of a cross He reaches down to pull Adam and Eve out of the pits. Jesus takes all of fallen humanity by the hand and leads us to Heavenly Heights. This is an image of an active, vigorous Church, a Church which was at one time commonly called the “Church Militant.”

Although the terms are not used much these days the Church has been traditionally divided into three parts. The Church Triumphant refers to the souls in Heaven; they have triumphed over sin and wickedness and enjoy the beatific vision that is God. They have won the fight.

The Church Suffering describes the souls in purgatory, still working out their salvation as their sins are purged. For them the fight has become an inward struggle with themselves.

Then there is the Church Militant, the souls here on earth still united to their physical bodies, for us the fight continues.

We are at war, and the Earth is a spiritual battlefield. The object of the war is to redeem a fallen world. We, the members of the Church, are the physical body of Christ in the world, united under His vicar, the Pope.

In the movie “Patton,” there is a moment when the general is having a disagreement with Major General Lucian Truscott. Truscott is questioning Patton’s aggressive strategy to which Patton replies,

“You’re a very good man, Lucian. You want to guard against being too conservative. Remember what Frederick the Great said: ‘L’audace, L’audace! Toujours L’audace!”

While that quote has been attributed to many different men, the idea became a cornerstone of Patton’s philosophy in battle. It was found on a notecard he kept in his papers. The full quote could be translated as “Ride the enemy to death, boldness, boldness, always boldness.”

Jesus tells us that the Gates of the netherworld will not prevail against the Church. Remember that gates do not attack; they defend. Jesus did not build a Church that sits passively behind a shield of faith while the enemy pounds away. The Church has a mission. It is an active force in the world. The Church takes the battle to the enemy, and the gates of hell will not be able to withstand the force of the Church.

As soldiers in this battle, we should not become frustrated when we are attacked. We should expect it and fight back. And God Himself has assured us of our victory.

Pax Vobiscum

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