“…Death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns…” Hamlet, 3.1.78
Indeed, Jesus’ descent into Hell is part and parcel of Christian doctrine, enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed. But, beware! The ‘prison’ visited by the Lord was not Hell proper. Rather, it was a sort of antechamber, an intermediate place or state where the souls of the righteous had to wait for the ultimate redemption through the sacrifice of the Cross.
This happy theology is perhaps best grasped in pictures. So, let me take you with me on imaginary wings to Istanbul, once the glittering Constantinople. The sacred city on the shores of the Bosporus, straddling Europe and Asia. The second Rome founded by Emperor Constantine, the self-styled “thirteenth apostle”. Let us take together a taxi (or ‘taksi’: Turkish has no letter x) to the Edirne Gate. Through a maze of little streets we make our way to the incomparable Kariye Cami, formerly the church of Our Saviour in Chora. Its inner walls are covered with some of the most stupendous Byzantine mosaics in the world. Once in the numinous inside, lift up your eyes at the apse or semi-dome. It takes your breath away! In a mosaic of amazing colours a tremendously dynamic, white-clad figure, almost like a wrestler, powerfully lifts up a man and a woman from out of a dungeon. Christ, the vanquisher of death and liberator of humankind, frees Adam and Eve from Hades. Under him the gates of Hell’s antechamber are burst open, while Satan trussed up like a chicken, now impotent and deprived of his captives, are trodden under the Saviour’s feet. Flanking Christ, on either side, stand our forefathers and the prophets, Abel, Abraham, Moses, King David, the Old Testament saints, witnessing the Redeemer’s triumph. Drink it all in, allow yourself to be submerged in admiration. It is Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. A stunning theology in pictures, you are staring at it right there, like another St John, gaping at one of his end-of-the-world vision on the island of Patmos. Or, closer to us, let us make it to Florence. The extraordinary Dominican Convent of St Mark. Where that angelic Renaissance artist, Beato Angelico, aiming at contemplation and instruction, daily painted his frescoes in devout prayer and meditation. And edifying his works definitely are. Particularly the one showing Christ smashing down the portal of Hell. He does so with such a force that Satan is squashed right under it, like a pathetic, wretched lizard. What a painting! The devil really has got his comeuppance. The message, once again, is the gates of Hell are thrown open and the imprisoned spirits are let out. Wonderful!
Islam too of course has bracing teachings on this subject. Life after death is certainly a major theme in the Qur’an. In numerous passages the Book teaches that God created death and life; it also contrasts the possessions of this world with ‘things far better than those’, namely the joys of the Garden – Paradise or Heaven (e.g. Qur’an 3: 14-15). Of special fascination to me are those Quranic verses (17:1 & 53:13-18) and prophetic traditions alluding to the Night Journey by the Prophet Muhammad to Heaven. Moreover, at the level of popular piety, the late-medieval Arabic Book of the Ladder elaborates further on the Prophet’s nocturnal journeys, under Gabriel’s guidance, into a prodigious, astounding Hereafter. Mentioned should also be made of the moving celebrations of the Day of Ashura, ….. This festival marks the martyrdom of Iman Husayn and his followers at Karbala. The public mourning, the processions and the rituals connected with Ashura are not only a powerful reminder of Husayn’s struggle against tyranny and injustice. They also witness to the Muslims’ profound faith in Divine Judgment and vindication of the saints and the righteous in the next life. Certainly, pious Muslims’ preoccupation with salvation and the Beyond is wholesomely evident in the title of conferences and meetings I have sometime attended. Such as: ‘Immortality’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘The Day of Judgment’ and the like. By contrast, I don’t recall coming across many church gatherings delving in such crucial subjects. Christians are supposed to believe in the Hereafter but in reality they do not seem much interested in it. It really is shocking.
Falling shortly after Halloween, a depressingly heathen and dangerous nonsense, the feast of All Souls – November 1st- is truly about the denizens of that ‘undiscovered country’ where one day we shall dwell. Pace Hamlet’s doubts, this spiritual feast offers a suitable antidote to paganism. All Souls is a celebration of the glorious Christian assertion of immortality, of the soul’s continued existence beyond the horrors of the grave. Crucially, the Church rightly invites all men to pray for the departed. Ancient luminaries like Tertullian, St Clement, Origen, St Cyprian and St Augustine all praise and support the practice. Inscriptions in catacombs testify to its early Christian use. Later, such prayers were connected with the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, a veritable red rag to the Protestant bull. As the damned are eternally in Hell, and the saved everlastingly in Heaven, what’s the point of praying for the departed, unless you postulate an intermediate state, i.e. Purgatory, some carp? But try to say that to the millions of people mourning after the carnages of wars, or any human catastrophe or indeed to any bereaved person. In other words, prayers for the dead, whatever their theological rationale, are a pastoral necessity. Besides, such prayers and petitions may well benefit the departed in ways known only to God.
Prayers for the departed are an essential part of funeral services. Apart from offering consolation, they indicate awareness of God’s promises: death is not the end, as unbelievers foolishly opine, but, as Scripture affirms, a door affording the righteous entrance into another, fuller and glorious existence.
‘Absent thee from felicity a while’, the dying Hamlet implores his friend Horatio about to swallow poison. To me, it suggests that the author of Hamlet was too much of a genius not to trust in eternal life. Another gigantic writer whom I much admire also had no doubts. I mean Fyodor Dostoevsky. Maybe the most telling passage in that tremendous religious novel, Brothers Karamazov, comes at the end. A boy has tragically died, his schoolmates gather around their teacher, young Alyosha Karamazov and eagerly seek reassurance: ‘Karamazov, is it true what religion says, that there is another world, that death is not the end, that we shall see our dead friend again?’ ‘Yes, it is true’, Alyosha confidently replies: ‘We shall all see each other again and rejoice together blissfully in the Kingdom of God.’