He Descended Into Hell

I posted a brief comment last night on Facebook about my son and I having a discussion on one of his vocabulary words: “descended.” My son remembered before I did that we use that word every Sunday in the Apostles’ Creed.  I joked that he found a way to get out of homework, at least for a few minutes, to have a theological discussion.  In the comments on Facebook that followed, a good friend then asked what I said to him, and rather than post it on that thread, I thought it easier to answer it on this blog.

Our ideas of heaven and hell are a bit more fixed than they were in ancient times. During most of the Old Testament, the Jews believed in Sheol, the place of the dead, where everyone went.  We then have to throw into the mix that Jesus himself, during his ministry, used the name of a local garbage dump, Gehenna (flames from which could be seen night and day), as a metaphor for what people would experience if they took the wrong path in life.  The Anglicized word for Gehenna is hell.  When the Apostles’ Creed was written (some 370 years after Jesus’ life), included in it was the famous phrase, ‘he descended into hell.”

If there is ever a question liturgical pastors are asked with frequency it is, “Where in the Bible does Jesus descend to hell?”  The answer to this literally is I Peter 3:18-22:

18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

But the passage is not as clear as many hope, and they walk away not sure of what to make of it all.

While this is the reference, I’ll tell you what I believe the early church was trying to say by putting that in the creed.  What we are called to believe is that there is no one who is beyond the grace of God, even those who had died before Jesus gave himself for us.  And nothing, not even hell itself, could or can stop him when he so chooses.

Earlier in his life, Jesus told Peter, when he confessed him as Messiah, “Upon this rock, I shall build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  The church confesses this to be true in the creed.

How far does Christ choose to go to save people?  That’s a matter for contemplation, prayer, and discussion.  But in the end, what we are really saying is the same thing that Paul wrote in Romans 8, and that is: nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Nothing.

And the only thing that really causes us difficulty is when we try to literalize everything.  I don’t think hell is literally “below us” anymore than heaven is “above us.”  But the metaphor points to actual truth.

But I am glad it is there and always glad when someone asks (even if they ask in the middle of homework).

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

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