The Keys of Hades
When I saw him I fell at his feet as though dead
But he laid his right hand upon me, saying,
“Fear not, I am the living one.
I died and behold I am alive for evermore,
and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
And another book was opened, which is the book of life,
and the dead were judged by what was written in the books,
by what they had done.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
The prophets are called to their vocation by a vision of God and by a purifying touch, as when Isaiah, seeing the Lord in the Temple, was purified by the touch of the coal from the heavenly altar even as he protested his unworthiness (Isaiah 6:1–9). The text from Revelation 1 describes the call of John to his prophetic vocation by the touch of Christ’s right hand. He sees Jesus, “One like a son of man.… His head and hair were white as white wool, white as snow; His eyes were like a flame of fire…. From His mouth issued a sharp, two edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.” This dramatic vision of Christ with the keys is the first of four in John’s Apocalypse. He is the Lamb standing on the throne surrounded by the praises of angels, men, and the great living animals in 5:6–14 and also the child born of the woman clothed with the sun who is caught up to God’s throne (12:4–5). He is the crowned knight mounted on His white horse, called the Word of God, the sword of God’s justice issuing from His mouth, His robe dipped in the blood of His sacrifice, with on His robe and thigh written “King of Kings and Lord of Lord” (19:11–16). And finally He is Emmanuel, God dwelling with men in the New Jerusalem, welcoming those who love Him, wiping tears from faithful eyes and welcoming His servants into the land where there is only life and glory, no pain or mourning (20:3–4).
The first image of Christ is unexpected and stark, its purpose being to assure the Prophet John, and through him the seven Churches to whom he is commanded to write, that the Son of Man has the ultimate power, power over death and Hades, both of which are substantives in this context, as when Saint Paul calls death “the last enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26). To possess the keys is to control the door and by extension to control what lies beyond the door. When Christ gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven Peter will command entrance through the power of forgiveness. Possessing the ‘keys to death’ means possessing power over death, the power to cause death to issue in life. Death we know. Death is active and imminent. It will meet us in its naked reality only once, although we experience it daily in its effects, for all sin, all disease, all disorder, is rooted in death, from which these things grow and toward which these things tend.
Hades, the place of departed spirits named for the god of the netherworld, is not part of the imaginal furniture of our minds, and the thought of it is likely to conjure up Virgil or another classical story. Our condition is further confused by the translation into English as ‘hell’ which is easily identified with the lake of fire in the text cited above, with Gehenna, the smoldering garbage heap, and with eternal punishment. In the Oxford English Dictionary the first meaning for Hell is “the place of departed spirits” and another is “a place of torment for the dead,” an ambiguity which could lead to the false conclusion that Peter had authority over the fate of those condemned to eternal punishment. When John saw his vision on Patmos, Hades was the entire sum of the personal past, for every soul ever born had at death passed into this kingdom of gloom. The intuition that such a place existed, sheol to the Hebrews, the dark underworld called Hades in the Hellenistic world, was a tribute to the common human intuition that the human soul is larger than time, so that life must persist. An unexpected proof of the universality of this intuition is a recent survey which showed that more Americans believe in an afterlife than believe in the existence of God. And the soft neo-paganism now often described as therapeutic, moralistic deism includes as one of its theses the conviction that everyone goes to heaven, although they expect to discover there neither a savior nor a judge.
Against this classical background the Christian belief that life is an adventure with exigent outcomes, ending irrevocably either in eternal joy or in eternal punishment, was a new teaching, anticipated by the prophets in their preaching of the Day of God on which righteousness would be rewarded and neglect of God and rebellion against Him punished. In the word of the prophet Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt”(12:2). This teaching would be the backbone of the heightened moral world taught by Christ, which always presupposed the doctrine of Matthew 25:31–46, that life would end in either blessedness with God or eternal desolation. After Good Friday Death was no longer the door to Hades but the door to eternal life or eternal death. But Christ came to a world in which it was commonly understood that the departed, with the exception of those like Elijah who had been taken up to God, were in that place of eternal existence and eternal gloom, the patriarch and prophets included, enduring prison-like persistence that while it may not be punishment is certainly less than the life they have left behind.
As the possibility of eternal life dawned, Christians, the Jews in a particular way, were concerned about the fathers, the patriarchs and prophets, about their ancestors and by extension about the human past. When Peter wrote his first epistle he could assume that his hearers will understand sympathetically his reference to the descent of Christ into the place of departed spirits in order to preach to them so that those who are to be saved would hear (3:19), and through the centuries the Church will proclaim in its creed that Christ descended into the place of departed spirits, the prison house of the great Adversary. Christ had promised that its gates would be unable to withstand the assaults of Grace; that Hades cannot keep Christ out is part of the meaning of the image of Christ holding the keys to death and Hades, He died for the righteous who had gone before as well as for us: His are all times and all ages
There is no feast day for Christ’s descent into the prison of the departed unless it is Holy Saturday, but the harrowing of hell ever belongs to Christian imagination, as in John Langland’s fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman:
Then the Light bad unlock, and Lucifer answered,
“Who art thou, Lord?” said Lucifer: “Qui est iste?”
“Rex Gloriae,” the Light responded,
Lord of Might and of Main and all manner of Virtues:
Dukes of this dim place undo the portal,
That Christ may come in, the King’s Son of Heaven.”
With that breath hell broke! All the bars of Belial,
For all their warriors and wardens, stood wide open,
Patriarchs and prophets, populous in tenebris,
Sang Saint John’s song, Ecce Agnus Dei.
Lucifer might not look up, the light so blinded him,
And those whom the Lord loved he lifted into that glory.
Then he said to Satan, “Lo, my soul is restitution
For all sinful souls, to save such as are worthy!
They are mine and of me. I may claim them better.
Although Reason records rightly of me
That if they ate the apple all should perish,
I have not ordained them here forever.
What death destroyed in them my death shall deliver.
Jesus says to the Prophet John, “I have the keys of Death and Hades”