Turn Your Back on Heaven
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Brahma"
If we had been there to investigate the circumstances surrounding Jesus' death and resurrection, we would naturally have wanted to know what became of him in between. The four New Testament gospels, which are presumably based in part on eyewitness accounts, are silent on this question. The Gospel of St. Luke mentions an incident in which Jesus promises one of the robbers dying with him on the cross, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." However, a tradition soon arose among the faithful that Jesus died and went to hell, if only for a short stay. This tradition eventually found its way into the Apostles Creed, making it an article of faith among Christians in the Western church.
Jesus' whereabouts during the period immediately after his death are of no small consequence to those who are called to follow him. To the extent his spiritual journey serves as a model for our own, it appears one cannot ascend into heaven without first descending into hell.
The hero's descent into the underworld is a common motif in ancient mythologies. Among those making this most arduous of journeys were the Hindu god Krishna; Gilgamesh, the semi-divine ruler in the Babylonian epic poem; the goddess Ishtar, who figures in Babylonian and Assyrian legends; and the Phoenician goddess Astarte. Among the few mortals who descended into Hades and lived to tell about it was the poet Orpheus, who tried to reclaim his dead wife Eurydice. Heracles also made the trip and persuaded Hades to let him bring back Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the underworld.
Although Jesus' descent to the dead was not incorporated into the Apostles Creed until much later, the story can be traced back to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, dating from the second or third centuries. The early church fathers, among them Tertullian, Hippolytus and Origen, also embraced it as a matter of belief. However, the "harrowing of hell," as it came to be called, was most fully elaborated in medieval English prose and verse, particularly in mystery plays. According to these stories, Christ descends into hell to bring salvation to righteous souls who died before him. In Eastern iconography, he is often depicted reaching out to a man and a woman who are understood to be Adam and Eve.
There is a psychological dimension to this drama in which the underworld can be seen as a representation of the unconscious. The English word "hell" comes from an Indo-European root meaning to cover or conceal; hence, hell is a concealed place. Similarly, "Hades" is derived from a Greek root meaning unseen, hidden or unknown. In psychological terms, the hero's descent into the underworld corresponds to the ego's descent into the unconscious. This psychic journey may be experienced as a kind of death and resurrection, leading to a rebirth that incorporates all the elements of one's whole self that had previously been cast into darkness. Jesus' rescue mission to hell is not complete until he reclaims Adam and Eve, who are the progenitors of all humanity and who therefore represent every element of the human psyche.
Carl Jung wrote, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." This is why Jesus had to turn his back on heaven. He did not come to save himself but to save the world. Many Buddhists regard him as a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who forgoes nirvana in order to bring enlightenment to all sentient beings. Enlightenment is never a solitary act. To think otherwise is merely to perpetuate the delusion of a self existing apart from God and apart from other sentient beings. As Isaiah prophesied long ago, "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."