The Harrowing of Hell asks: Who was Jesus?


There is perhaps no historical figure who is more frequently the topic of debates than the figure of Jesus Christ.

Prophet or Conman?

Divine or Human?

Martyr or Madman?

While most would concede there is sufficient evidence to validate the existence of a historical figure often called Jesus Christ—though some do continue to argue otherwise—this is about the only fact that can be agreed on. Christians hold the fervent belief He is the Son of God in human form and that his actions on earth will ultimately lead to humanity’s salvation. To followers of the Islamic faith, He is one in a line of great prophets. To atheists and non-believers He may be a philosopher with many unique insights, or He may be merely one of many—copying the ideas and tenets put forward by others in ancient times.

Regardless of your perspective, it’s undeniable that Jesus’ life has had a significant impact on the direction of the modern world. Wars and nations have been fought and formed in His name. His image is immediately recognisable for many.

As somebody born and raised in the Christian faith, I feel like I have had a relatively good idea of who Jesus is for most of my life. Interestingly though, my perspective on Jesus, and His teachings, has not always lined up with others—even diverging from other Christians. Such is the diversity of perspectives surrounding him.

When I look at Christian pastors in across the world preaching the prosperity gospel—proclaiming that God helps those that help themselves and that donating to fund the pastor’s purchase of a new private jet will solve all their problems—I don’t see the message of Jesus which they claim to be preaching

The Harrowing of Hell

Who was Jesus really?

This was the question at the heart of a book I recently had the pleasure of reading. The Harrowing of Hell (written and illustrated by Evan Dahm, and published by Iron Circus Comics) is a haunting fable of a graphic novel which “reinterprets one of the most important religious figures in history, before he was the god of the wealthy and powerful, before he was recast as the warrior worshippers preferred.” The book is a retelling of the event from which it receives its name—the Harrowing of Hell refers to a story which takes place after Christ’s crucifixion and follows His descent into, and return from, the underworld or Hell—which culminates in Jesus’ resurrection. While not discussed in the original gospels found in the New Testament of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), this is a belief common in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. At first, I was drawn to the book because of its interpretation of this apocryphal event.

I, like many Protestant Christians, believe that Hell is not a literal place but refers to an eternal death—an existence separated from the Creator and sustained life being an impossibility rather than a physical place filled with eternal suffering. As a result, I was interested in reading this fascinating reinterpretation which draws from a wide array of source’s including the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus—a text that is not included in the Bible—in order to see what insights it might have about Jesus that can be applied in the modern age.

To my surprise, I found a great deal to think about. While Dahm claims he has no interest in defining or representing a “real” or objective image of Christ, I nevertheless found his depiction to be one which felt extremely authentic—closely representing the image of Christ I see when I engage with His story in the bible. More specifically, I believe Dahm’s depiction highlights three aspects of Jesus which are often overlooked in many other depictions.

Jesus was a storyteller

One of the things which Jesus is known for are His parables. Throughout His time on earth, Jesus told many stories which He used to represent truths about the world, about God, about Heaven and a variety of other topics. When asked why He did this by His disciples, the Bible tells us that Jesus responded stating “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables. Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” (Matthew 13:11-13).

Dahm’s interpretation expands on this, highlighting the eternal nature of stories. His depiction of Jesus describes the stories as the seed of the kingdom. When one of Jesus’ disciples Thomas counters that a kingdom is made from “stones, labour. . . warfare and law” Jesus points out that this perception of what a kingdom constitutes is itself a story, and that unlike this story “the Word will last forever.”

As somebody who has often found himself enamoured with storytelling in its multitude of forms, the way Dahm highlights this aspect strongly appealed to me. In a podcast recording earlier today I spoke with a colleague about my belief that we as humans often view the world through a narrative lens—using the structures of stories to make sense of the world. In highlighting this aspect of Jesus’ outreach, Dahm hits on one of the core truths I believe about Jesus: He was an intensely relational man who attempted to connect with people in ways they would understand. That’s why Jesus spoke in stories: there is nothing more universal than a compelling narrative.

Jesus refused to be defined by others

Jesus was a man whose message contained a revolutionary humility at its core, something that the Bible makes extremely clear. Despite numerous temptations, he remained steadfastly dedicated to His mission. At one point, while fasting in the desert, Jesus was tempted by Satan to forsake His Father in exchange for power and status should He kneel before him, but Jesus rejected this temptation (Matthew 4:1-11). Similarly, before He was crucified, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that there may be another way to complete His mission—but when confronted with the fact that there was not, He accepted this and sacrificed Himself to show His love (Matthew 26:36-56).

A sketch of Jesus and the adversary posted on Dahm’s tumblr

In Dahm’s story, another temptation plays out near the climax of Jesus’ journey. Jesus is confronted by the “adversary”, a ruling figure who claims that should Jesus kneel, they will give him a new name and power. The adversary claims that their kingdom is the one which mankind recognises: “the crucifying kingdom,” one of war, and violence and force. The adversary hopes to turn Christ into a symbol of this kingdom, something which He rejects.

While this encounter is not drawn from the Bible like the temptations mentioned above, it maintains the ring of truth. Like in biblical accounts, Jesus steadfastly rejects the attempts of others to mold Him into a tool or figurehead for their purpose. He is, and always was, defined by His actions and His mission, not by what others project on Him. When He famously said, “I am who you say I am,” this was an acknowledgment of His divine nature—not an acceptance of all the narratives that were placed on Him.

The encounter also highlights one of the unfortunate results of the diverse perspectives on Jesus in the present day: some indeed use the name and image of Jesus for evil, twisting it to be something it is not. It is no co-incidence that the adversary is drawn resembling a Roman ruler—considering the acts of violence and harm inflicted by the Roman Empire and its descendants in the name of Christ. To look at the example of the Crusades is to acknowledge that the plan of the adversary that Dahm presents reflects the reality of faith today—it can be warped and twisted.

Jesus does not force us to believe

Following on from the confrontation with the adversary, Dahm depicts a meeting between Christ and Adam and Eve, the first humans to sin, who are imprisoned in a prison at the lowest depths of Hell. While Jesus claims that His actions have freed them from damnation, physically opening their cell and providing them an exit, they refuse to believe Him—instead choosing to stay in their cell.

This is an event with no basis in the canonical Bible but is included because it speaks to a specific interpretation of Jesus—one I would argue does have a biblical basis. This interpretation is the idea that Jesus does not force anyone to believe in Him. While His sacrifice is universal, and anybody who chooses to believe in Him will be saved, this salvation is entirely voluntary. This idea is summed up in one of the most famous Bible verses, John 3:16 which states: “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Belief, by its very nature, is unable to be coerced or forced. While historically some people have attempted to convert others, and used the excuse of converting others to justify atrocities (such as the separation of native peoples from their families that occurred in nations like Australia and Canada), this is not in line with the true Christianity put forward by Christ.

Christ shows a new way of living, one which is focused on humility and kindness to all around us. But He will not force Himself on us. As Revelation 3:20 puts it: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

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Ryan Stanton is a PhD Student at the University of Sydney. He bought The Harrowing of Hell after seeing someone tweet about it and was pleasantly surprised by its nuance and complexity. This is, to his knowledge, the only time Twitter has had a positive effect on his mental health.

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