The Sandman and the Harrowing of Hell

JR. Forasteros

“What power have dreams in Hell?” — Lucifer Morningstar

It only took four episodes for Netflix's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman to go to hell. Literally. Episode 4, "A Hope in Hell," chronicles a journey to Hell, where Morpheus—an immortal personification of dreams—hopes to retrieve his helmet from none other than Lucifer Morningstar. As a faithful adaptation of one of the best issues of Gaiman’s original comic, "A Hope in Hell" illustrates the power of hope in the face of suffering.

The Sandman began as a 75-issue comic series chronicling the trials that face Morpheus/Dream (a perfectly taciturn Tom Sturridge) after he escapes from a centuries-long captivity. Dream is not a god; he is one of seven Endless—manifestations of eternal qualities that include “siblings” Dream, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and the twins Desire and Despair (Mason Alexander Park and Donna Preston, respectively). During Dream’s confinement, the realm of dreams fell into chaos, with nightmares free to wander the world. Dream must recover his bag of sand, helmet, and ruby—three objects he created with his own essence and that contain his power. When he learns that his helmet was traded to a demon, he descends to Hell to get it back.

Gaiman's Hell is a Dante-inspired nightmare ruled by Lucifer Morningstar (a nuanced, powerful Gwendoline Christie). A beatific angel whose grace belies the horrors around them, Lucifer has had dealings with Dream before; their initial interactions carry the implication of a long, complicated history. All of this, however, is a prelude to the battle for Dream's helm. The demon who owns the helm refuses to relinquish it without a fight. When Dream agrees, the demon names Lucifer as his champion (in the comic, the demon competed himself, but this small change is welcome in that it gives Christie more screen time).

The battle is a familiar wizard's duel (think Merlin and Madam Mim in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone). Lucifer opens, taking the form of a wolf, which Dream counters by becoming a horse-mounted hunter. Lucifer then becomes a snake, so Dream becomes a bird. Lucifer jumps to a bacterium (which is where Merlin defeated Mim). The battle has a—pardon the pun—dreamlike cadence. Dream and Lucifer speak in gentle, deliberate tones, as each conjured image appears from a fog and attacks its opponent.

After Lucifer becomes a bacterium, Dream becomes a world, marking a shift in Dream's tactics. Lucifer becomes a planet-destroying nova, so Dream embodies a nova-encompassing universe. In response, Lucifer becomes "anti-life, the beast of judgment, the dark at the end of everything."

As Dream lays (defeated?) on the ground, Lucifer crows, "What will you be then, Dream Lord? . . .What can survive the anti-life?"

"I am . . . ," Dream breathes as he starts to rise. "Hope. . . . Well, Lightbringer, what is it that kills hope?" Unable to muster an answer, Lucifer concedes defeat.

"A Hope in Hell" illustrates the power of hope in the face of suffering.

What is hope? To paraphrase the recently departed Frederick Buechner, it means believing "the worst thing is never the last thing." There Buechner spoke of Easter Sunday, of the resurrection of Jesus. The worst thing, then, was Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, and Holy Saturday, when—according to the Apostles' Creed—"he descended to hell." Christians call this the "Harrowing of Hell," a doctrine that has largely been relegated to some incredibly metal medieval artwork. (My personal favorite is a painting with that title by Hieronymus Bosch, whose chaotic, monstrous city, in which the light of the conquering Christ is nearly lost, seems to have inspired Netflix’s horrifying hellscape.)

In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch writes that the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell "not only says something important about the extent of Jesus' redemptive suffering—how deeply he participated in human loss, how far his saving power extends—but also about the nature of Christlike life and leadership. Only those who have descended to the dead can be fully trusted to lead—because only they can truly declare vanquished the fear that animates all idolatry and exploitation."

In other words, vulnerability is what strips hell of its power—something Dream illustrates in his battle with Lucifer. When Lucifer became a bacterium, Dream could have become hand sanitizer. But then Lucifer would simply have become fire; there's always something that can destroy what you are. Dream's weapon becomes hospitality. He gives Lucifer's bacterium a world in which to thrive, then Lucifer's nova a universe in which the star's death can become the beginning of other stars, planets, and life.

It's noteworthy that Lucifer doesn't become Death, but anti-life. Anti-life, DC Comics fans know, is that which Darkseid, the immortal enemy of the Justice League, seeks. It’s the power to end all life in the universe. Lucifer becoming anti-life is more than just a nod to the DC Comics universe in which The Sandman technically takes place. It’s a way to distinguish anti-life from death. Death is Dream's sister; we get to know her in Episode 6. Death is dignified and kind; she takes her role in the mortal world seriously and cares deeply for the humans she escorts away from mortality. So too bacteria and novas represent a kind of death that's woven into the fabric of the created order, much like wolves, snakes, and birds of prey. Anti-life is something different. It's a refusal of community and hospitality. It's anti-hope, anti-God.

What can overcome anti-life? Only hope—a confidence that this worst thing is not the last thing. No wonder, then, in meditating on suffering, the Apostle Paul cannot help but end in hope: “. . . we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Hope is that which survives the Hell of The Sandman, the end of the world, even the end of all things.

Topics: TV