Guest Post: ‘By Death Trampling Down Death’

There are new complementary and opposite trends in mail I receive from readers, a change I find both delightful and reassuring. The little negative email I have had over the years from Culture Warriors [TM] has all but evaporated as the Godly Guardians of the Gates move on to the next literary/cinematic beachhead on which to draw ‘lines in the sand we dare not cross.’ Simultaneously, I am receiving requests for help with papers from undergraduate and graduate students who are writing papers on, you guessed it, the “artistry and meaning of Harry Potter.”

Last week, I shared an exchange I had with a philosophy student in the UK. This week, I have a paper for you from an undergraduate named Sophia at the University of Pittsburgh. Sophia used my How Harry cast His Spell (formerly Looking for God in Harry Potter) as one of her resources and found Gilderoy’s e-address there. She hopes for feedback from and conversation with the HogPro All-Pros on her discussion of “By Death Trampling Down Death”: Resurrection Imagery in Harry Potter; please share your comments and corrections after reading her thoughts!

“By Death Trampling Down Death”: Resurrection Imagery in Harry Potter

It is a well known fact that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has often been subject to harsh criticism from Christian readers.  The fourth book in particular, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, recounts the performance of an occult ritual that restores Lord Voldemort, the villain of the series, to life, after he had been at the brink of death.  A critic could well ask why Rowling would allow Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, to undergo a sort of resurrection reminiscent of Christ’s, if not to undermine Christian values.  A closer analysis of scenes and images associated with resurrection in the books, however, reveals that Voldemort’s rise from near-death is a twisted, distorted version of resurrection, set up in contrast to Harry’s true resurrection at the end of the final book in the series.  Rowling herself has admitted that the Christian symbolism in her books has “always been obvious,” and that the two New Testament quotes Harry finds in the graveyard where his parents are buried (“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” from Matthew 6:21 and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” from 1 Corinthians 15:26) can “almost epitomize the whole series” (Adler).

The significance of these quotes to the series manifests clearly in the books’ resurrection imagery, which demonstrate Harry and Voldemort’s contrasting views on where to keep their “treasure” and how to “destroy death”.  In the end, these resurrection scenes and biblical allusions convey the message that Voldemort’s earthly materialism, power-hungriness, and preservation of his body at the expense of his soul are not the way to destroy death, but that, rather, Harry’s loving and sacrificing himself for others are what allow him to become the “master of death,” a distinctly Christian idea (Rowling, Hallows, 720).

Jesus’ resurrection is considered by many Christians the central event that defines the Christian faith.  To explain its significance is impossible in words, though John Granger, an Orthodox Christian literary and theological scholar, gives it a try with this concise summary of Christian beliefs about Jesus: “The purpose of the incarnation of God [Christ] was to destroy death by death.  Love himself became a man, lived sinlessly, sacrificed himself in love for his creations, and blew a hole through the veil [allusion to his resurrection, since a common metaphor for death is “going beyond the veil”]…. With his death… he opened for us passage to eternal life with him in God’s eternal glory” (Looking for God 68-9).

In other words, Jesus’ resurrection proved that he, as one of the three Persons of the Trinity, has mastery over death, and the power to save humanity from death as well, so that the souls who are prepared for it can join him in paradise rather than in the bonds of death.  To a Christian, it is possible to fall into death’s trap even while physically alive, and to be spiritually alive in heaven while being physically dead.  This concept appears in the Harry Potter books as well; in Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry not to fear death because “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” (Rowling 297).  Later, in Half-Blood Prince, he tells Draco, who is afraid that the Dark Lord will kill him, that Voldemort “cannot kill you if you are already dead,” and he encourages the boy to leave Voldemort’s evil service (Rowling 591).  John Granger explains what this means: “Dumbledore teaches Harry [and tries to teach Draco here] not to fear death as much as a life without love, which is the real death” (Looking for God 69).

Voldemort is the supreme example of this loveless “real death.”  His “rebirthing party,” as he calls it, demonstrates his imprisonment in death, even though it was meant to restore him to normal human life (Rowling, Goblet 652).  This is especially ironic because he wants to avoid dying at all costs.  He tells his Death Eater followers in the graveyard in Goblet, “You know my goal—to conquer death” (Rowling 653).  These words are reminiscent of the words on the tombstone of Harry’s parents: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (Rowling, Hallows 328).  Earthly death is Voldemort’s greatest enemy, but he does not realize that his “life” is already a living death.

Even by simply examining the graveyard scene, the reader can discern Voldemort’s entrapment by death.  Clearly his goal in the scene is to restore his old body, revealing his preoccupation with the physical, but he does not just want his old body; he wants to “rise again, more powerful than [he] had been when [he] had fallen” (Rowling, Goblet 656).  Here, he is referring to his use of some of Harry’s blood in the “resurrection” spell, thus transferring a bit of Lily’s (Harry’s mother, who died to save him from Voldemort) protection from Harry to Voldemort, so the latter can now touch Harry (Rowling, Goblet 657).

Certainly Voldemort is now more powerful, but at what cost?  The ritual he uses to restore his body shows his extreme selfishness; besides being a mockery of Jesus’ resurrection, which was entirely selfless, Voldemort’s spell requires taking from others: “Bone of the father…. Flesh of the servant… [and] blood of the enemy” (Rowling, Goblet 641-2).  In the first case, Voldemort killed his father years before this scene occurs, thus making Tom Riddle Sr.’s bones available.  As for the servant, Wormtail, Voldemort is entirely unconcerned that Wormtail is in pain after sacrificing a hand for the spell, and the cruel master allows the servant to suffer for a long time before healing him.   Finally, for the enemy’s blood, Voldemort captures Harry solely for the selfish purpose of restoring his body and getting revenge by killing the boy who defeated him thirteen years previously (Rowling, Goblet 649, 656).

Voldemort also tries to assert his authority in this scene by expecting his Death Eaters to kiss the hem of his robes and by using the Cruciatus curse to torture Harry and even one of his own followers (Rowling, Goblet 647-8, 657).  Voldemort’s obsession with restoring his physical body, his selfish theft from others for his own gain, and his attempts to control others reveal his lack of love and thus, his enslavement to spiritual death.  His “treasure” is earthly power, which, like all earthly things, must eventually pass away, so he can never truly defeat death, the “last enemy.”

A discussion of Voldemort’s Horcruxes is an appropriate transition between the topics of Voldemort’s mock-resurrection and Harry’s true resurrection, both because the reader learns of the Horcruxes between these two events, and because the Horcruxes are the means by which Voldemort tried to attain earthly immortality.  As Professor Slughorn explains in Half-Blood Prince, making a Horcrux involves “split[ting] your soul… and hid[ing] part of it in an object outside the body.  Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged” (Rowling 497).

The catch, however, is that to split one’s soul, one must commit, “the supreme act of evil… murder.  Killing rips the soul apart,” Slughorn says (Rowling, Prince 498).  Creating a Horcrux, binding one’s soul to earth, is the essence of “lay[ing] up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust [or basilisk fangs and Fiendfyre] destroy and where thieves [or Harry, Ron, and Hermione] break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).

Voldemort’s heart, such as it is, is most certainly with these earthly treasures rather than focused on more permanent things, such as the state of his split soul.  He believes that Horcruxes are the way to destroy his enemy, death, but instead, they once again accentuate his bondage to spiritual death because of the complete lack of love they require—he must selfishly kill others to create a Horcrux, showing no regard for their souls, or for the damage he is doing to his own soul by splitting it.

Only a truly evil person would go to such lengths to tether his soul to earth, where it is easier to deny the existence of goodness (Rowling, Stone 291) and disparage the power of love (Rowling, Hallows 739).  He could not do this after death, when Christians believe the truth of God will be made clear to each soul.  Perhaps this is what the shuddering, whimpering bit of Voldemort’s soul that Harry leaves behind in “King’s Cross” at the end of Deathly Hallows is so afraid of; certainly Dumbledore believes that Harry has “less to fear from returning here [King’s Cross] than [Voldemort] does” (Rowling 722).

Voldemort’s Horcrux problems do not end with his soul-splitting.  He does not even derive the intended benefit from his Horcruxes; to the contrary, they provide the means for the heroes of the series to defeat him, because once all the Horcruxes are destroyed, Voldemort can be killed like an ordinary mortal (Rowling, Prince 508-9).  In fact, Harry becomes an unintentional Horcrux.  As Dumbledore explains, “You were the seventh Horcrux, Harry, the Horcrux he never meant to make.  He had rendered his soul so unstable that it broke apart when he committed those acts of unspeakable evil, the murder of your parents, the attempted killing of a child…. He left a part of himself latched to you” (Rowling, Hallows 708).  The bit of Voldemort’s soul within Harry dies when Voldemort hits him with the Killing Curse in Deathly Hallows (Rowling 708).

This is only one of many ways that Voldemort sows the seeds for his own defeat.  Another example related to the topics already discussed is Harry’s blood.  Voldemort intends for it to make him stronger, but instead, it “tethered [Harry] to life while [Voldemort] lives,” as Dumbledore explains, allowing Harry to survive the Killing Curse one more time (Rowling, Hallows 709).  Voldemort’s power-grabs—Horcruxes, Harry’s blood, Wormtail’s hand, etc.—are elegant metaphors for what happens to people’s souls when they wish to cling only to material life.  When one invests too much in “earthly cares,” as one Christian hymn puts it, then one does bind part of one’s soul to earth, rather than to God.

Death destroys such a person, as opposed to the other way around, because if one’s soul is bound to earth, it cannot exalt in the glory of God after death.  This is a markedly Christian worldview, as Jesus specifically says, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).  Rowling makes this Christian message clear, and Voldemort’s fate is a warning to all who read her books, even if the religious connections are not explicit.

Harry’s resurrection scene in Deathly Hallows stands in stark contrast to Voldemort’s mock-resurrection and grasping attempts to extend his earthly life through his Horcruxes.  But before this scene can be fully understood, it is important to note that many Christian critics (e.g., Granger, Bookshelf 217; Killinger 156) believe that Harry undergoes a type of “death” and “resurrection” during the climaxes of all seven of his books, each time descending to some place representing death such as an underground chamber, a cave, or a graveyard, battling the forces of evil there in imitation of the Harrowing of Hell, and escaping, victorious each time, as if he were rising from the dead.

John Granger goes on to say that, each time, Harry “comes back from this faux death either because of or just in the vicinity of a symbol of Christ,” such as a phoenix in Chamber of Secrets, Goblet of Fire, and Order of the Phoenix, or a stag Patronus in Prisoner of Azkaban (Granger, Bookshelf 218).  In the final book, however, Harry’s resurrection is different.  This time, Granger says, “Harry doesn’t rise from the dead in the presence of a symbol of Christ… he rises as a symbol of Christ” (Bookshelf 218, emphasis in original).  As evidence for this view, he points out the following parallels between Christ’s Passion and the events in chapter thirty-four of Deathly Hallows, which I will explicate in a bit more detail than he did in this particular passage:

1. “Harry has Garden of Gethsemane desires and chooses to act in obedience as savior” (Bookshelf 179).

On the night he is betrayed, Jesus goes to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing he will be captured, and from there led to his death for the salvation of the world.  “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done,” he prays, wishing that there is some way to avoid the suffering awaiting him, but knowing that he must obey his Father’s will (Luke 22:42).  Similarly, on his way to what he thinks is his death at the hands of Voldemort to destroy the fragment of Voldemort’s soul inside him, Harry walks through a forest, which in a way is like a garden.  He has many fearful thoughts—moments when he wishes someone could “take this cup away” from him so he will not have to die—such as when he sees Ginny, the girl he loves.  Then, he thinks, “He wanted to be stopped, to be dragged back, to be sent back home….” (Rowling, Hallows 697).  But he walks onward, obediently; throughout the chapter, “it [does] not occur to him… to try to escape, to outrun Voldemort” (Rowling, Hallows 692).  His dedication toward saving his friends is strong:  “Harry would not let anyone else die for him now that he had discovered it was in his power to stop it” (Rowling, Hallows 693).

2. “Harry walks the Via Dolorosa, stumbles, and is helped by Lily, his mother” (Bookshelf 179).

The Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow), also known as the Stations of the Cross, is a devotional ritual used primarily in Catholic churches, to remember and meditate upon the various sufferings Jesus encountered as he bore his cross toward the site of his crucifixion (Alston).  Some of the stations do not come directly from any biblical source, such as the station in which Jesus encounters his mother, and the three stations commemorating Jesus’ three falls along his route (though his trouble with the weight of the cross could be inferred from the way the soldiers had to force Simon of Cyrene to bear Jesus’ cross in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels).  It is possible that Rowling knows of these stations and is alluding to them when she writes that Harry “stumbled and slipped toward the end of his life, toward Voldemort,” just as Jesus stumbles on the Via Dolorosa (Rowling, Hallows 701).  This march toward death, despite its necessity, is not easy for either of them, and they need help along the way.  The Stations of the Cross mention Simon of Cyrene, a non-biblical woman named Veronica, and Jesus’ mother Mary all meeting Jesus along his path (Alston).  Likewise, Harry receives support from the “memor[ies] made nearly solid” of his dead parents (obviously including his mother), his godfather Sirius, and his teacher and friend Remus, who all return briefly when Harry calls them back with the Resurrection Stone (Rowling, Hallows 699).  The narrator asserts, “their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other” (Rowling, Hallows 700).

3. “Harry dies sacrificially and without resistance to defeat the Dark Lord, as Christ died on the Cross” (Bookshelf 179).

Jesus, as the Son of God, could have simply said the word and all his enemies would cease to exist.  In that case, though, he would not have fulfilled his mission to die for the sake of saving humanity from sin.  Therefore, he did not protest at any point throughout his Passion.  One example of this is when he does not defend himself against the chief priests’ accusations: “And the chief priests accused Him of many things, but He answered nothing. Then Pilate asked Him again, saying, ‘Do You answer nothing? See how many things they testify against You!’  But Jesus still answered nothing, so that Pilate marveled” (Mark 15:3-5).

In a similar way, Harry, who must also die in order to save his friends from Voldemort (the same reason he experiences all those figurative deaths at the end of the other books), does not fight back when he appears before Voldemort at the end of this chapter.  Instead, he “pull[s] off the Invisibility Cloak and stuff[s] it beneath his robes, with his wand.  He d[oes] not want to be tempted to fight” (Rowling, Hallows 703).  He makes no move, speaks no word of defense or protest as Voldemort taunts him and then aims the Avada Kedavra curse at him (Rowling, Hallows 703-4).  Just as Jesus did, he submits himself to sacrificial death to save others, without resistance.

This commitment to die for the sake of those he loves marks Harry as more different from Voldemort than any other possible action.  Clearly, Harry believes the lives and livelihoods of his friends are more important than the survival of his physical body; by sacrificing himself, he is showing his love for them.  This love is his treasure, not his own life, as it is for Voldemort.  Since love can never die, Harry’s love can never decay or be stolen.  He has entrusted his heart to something more permanent than the destructible Horcruxes, and once again, the message this conveys is Christian: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).

For this reason, Harry, like Jesus, manages to destroy the “last enemy,” Death.  He becomes “the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death.  He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying” (Rowling, Hallows 720-1).  Dumbledore says this while he and Harry are in the otherworldly King’s Cross station, which Harry imagines after Voldemort’s curse sends him into a state halfway between life and death.  Besides a train station being a good metaphor for the crossroads we all must experience, of whether to embrace a deathly existence or return ourselves from the darkness into the light, it is no coincidence that Harry has located himself in this specific train station, within the Cross of Christ the King.  John Granger takes discussion of this topic to a deeper level by relating it to God as the Center or Origin of all things:

[T]he story has its most important turn at King’s Cross because, the cross, like the circle, is defined by the center point at which a horizontal and vertical line meet…. [B]y sacrificing himself without hope of gain, Harry, in effect, has executed his ego or died to himself, thereby returning to the center or transpersonal self before Voldemort kills him…. Harry survives as the center because no point on the circle can destroy the center defining that circle.  By transcending himself, Harry steps out of time and space, if you will, and into eternity and the infinite of the Origin. (Granger, Bookshelf 221, emphasis in original)

This “dying to oneself” is the way to become “master of death,”[1] and truly defeat this “last enemy.”  By putting others before himself, as Christ did, Harry has ensured an existence full of life for himself and for all those who share love with him, even beyond the grave.  This is reminiscent of the life Jesus is talking about when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).  Harry returns from King’s Cross to finish the job of defeating Voldemort—that is, defeating this representative of spiritual death, the “last enemy.”  The reader can feel Harry’s triumph right along with him when Voldemort, once again, is the instrument of his own downfall; his Killing Curse rebounds off of Harry’s Disarming Charm (incidentally, in the “dead center of the circle they had been treading”) and hits Tom Riddle instead, and the last fragment of the soul he ignored leaves this world forever (Rowling, Hallows 743-4).

Evidence from the books clearly confirms Rowling’s statement that the two quotes on the gravestones embody the Christian spirit of the entire series.  Throughout the novels, but particularly in the scene of Voldemort’s faux-resurrection, we see that this villain keeps his treasure—an earthly body and power over others—on earth, believing that these will help him conquer death, but not realizing that this empty, loveless existence has already trapped him in spiritual death.  Harry, meanwhile, in the culminating scene in which he willingly goes to his death and then returns from it unscathed, shows that he has died to himself, by putting his love for others ahead of his concern for his own earthly life.

Love is his treasure, and it is at the center—the heart—of everything.  Through it, Harry defeats the “last enemy,” of spiritual death.  Even readers unfamiliar with the Christian story of Christ’s Resurrection can feel the resonance of this message.  Who has not secretly hoped in their hearts that love must triumph over death?  Rowling has added a new layer, however, that may not have been clear to readers before: only by death to self can one show true love, and conquer spiritual death.  Thus, the words of the Orthodox Christian Resurrection hymn can ring true to every reader, even if they have never heard the hymn before: “Christ is risen from the dead,/ By death trampling down death,/ and to those in the tombs bestowing life.”

Works Cited

Adler, Shawn. “’Harry Potter’ author J.K. Rowling opens up about books’ Christian imagery.” 17 Oct. 2007. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <>.

Alston, George Cyprian. “Way of the Cross.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <>

Granger, John. Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: the Great Books behind the Hogwarts Adventures. New York: Berkley, 2009. Print.

Granger, John. Looking for God in Harry Potter. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2004. Print.

Killinger, John. God, the Devil, and Harry Potter: A Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2002. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: A.A. Levine, 1997. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: A.A. Levine, 1998. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: A.A. Levine, 1999. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: A.A. Levine, 2000. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: A.A. Levine, 2003. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: A.A. Levine, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: A.A. Levine, 2007. Print.

[1] In this book, “master of death” also refers to the one who successfully unites the three Deathly Hallows, but a full analysis of those objects is beyond the scope of this paper.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this, John, and for the delightful email exchange we’ve been sharing! I have actually already turned in this paper and received a grade for it, but my professor has asked me to present the paper at the Undergraduate Literature Conference this spring, so I will gladly accept any comments or suggestions for how to make it more conducive to a speech format. Rest assured, now that I have discovered this website, I will be reading and commenting regularly now on other posts as well! 🙂

  2. I enjoyed immensely this condensation of now 7 years+ on the Professors internet manifestations. Congratulations on a firm grasp of the essentials and literary writ to advance to oral presentation. Kudos and blessings! Merry Western Calender Christmas (Harry’s cultural exigency, too, by the way!).

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