“Descended into Hell”
Over the last few years I’ve grown less fond of the Apostle’s Creed… I always knew that it had little (nothing) to say of Jesus’ life. And that mostly was an intellectual recognition for me, I didn’t feel the lack I just knew it existed. But as I’ve spent more time on discipleship and formation of a life lived in the way of Jesus I’ve come to realize that this lack is really unacceptable. However, it does still have powerful ideas to share and proclaim and my favorite, by far, is the line, “he descended into hell.”
It is a controversial line – challenging to say the least, offensive to many. In eight years of being the primary contact for visitors and new members I have long since lost count of the number of people who ask why we say such a thing and others who wondered why we added it to the creed. (I hate to burst your bubble but we didn’t add it, we just didn’t take it out either.)
So why is this my favorite part – beyond that I love things that stir controversy (because controversy, hopefully, stirs reflection and critical thinking)? There are reasons I give for why it is there, and these get themselves – eventually – to my love for it.
We understand that Jesus died, died, died on the cross – and hell is the “land” of the dead. So it’s partly a statement that Jesus really is dead for the three days. Jesus did not simply pretend to die, or seem to die – Jesus really did die. (Rabbit trail alert: How many of us are still Trinitarian at the cross? Do we also say, God died, died, died. I do – but it seems to me that many of us do not… but that is a conversation for another day.) I like this assertion but it is not why it’s my favorite part.
We also understand something of a tradition of the harrowing of hell, though that tradition itself is contested and probably most prevalent in artistic works of the Eastern Church that show Christ’s resurrection in the company of the departed. But in the development of the idea of the harrowing (plowing up, making fertile) of hell we are developing the thought from the letter of 1 Peter 3:18-20 Jesus descends into hell to bring there the good news. Jesus ministry has always been among the downtrodden, the excluded, the “sinners” and this is an extension of that ministry. This gets closer to what I love about the statement. In “descended into hell” I see us proclaiming two wonderful truths.
The first is that when God dies on the cross, God becomes God-forsaken and goes to hell, the “place” of God-forsakenness (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”). In this act the impossible happens – God enters the very place which is thought to be forsaken by God. Thus we know that there really is no place that God’s light doesn’t shine, that good news is not preached… and realized. The harrowing of hell. Hell hath no fury like a God who will not let God’s people go.
The Psalmist in Psalm 139 already knew this of course, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
And this brings me the full expression of what I love about proclaiming, “descended into hell.” We put our faith in a descending God. Not God on high, not enthroned on praise, not with God’s head in the sky or a transcendent heavenly God – God descends… constantly. God descends to human flesh to be with us. God descends to death and death on a cross, power perfected in weakness enduring shame and ridicule to bring about new life, hope, and the healing of the world. But that is not enough… God must descend farther – the ultimate shame and scandal – God descends into hell. Hell? But that’s where evil goes, that is a place of eternal punishment… God can’t go there!!! And yet we say it when we proclaim the Apostle’s Creed – every week at the church where I worship. God descended into hell. There is no place God won’t go to bring healing, hope, life, and light.
So what does that say to us? If we follow a descending God – a God who descends even into hell, to free the forsaken, to turn the tables over, to be in all ways and all places to all people – than what does that mean for us? Where are we to go? Who are we to go to, and for what purpose?
The so-called scandal of the cross ( a messiah who saves by dying, power demonstrated in the ultimate demonstration of weakness and death being hung until death on a Roman cross) is not the final scandal, God always sees to it to descend further and farther… there is no place from which we can flee God’s presence. There is no place we are not called to be good news reflecting the light and life of Christ.
Descended into hell…. Come and follow.