By the Rev. Dr. Michael A. Lippard, pastor, St. Andrew, Nashville, TN Originally published in the St. Andrew newsletter, November 2009
Have you ever wondered about the creedal affirmation that Jesus descended to the dead? In some hymnals, including our previous one, the Apostles’ Creed says Jesus descended into hell. Whether we say Jesus descended to the dead or into hell, what are we talking about?
The idea is that Jesus went to the realm of the dead to free its prisoners and preach the gospel. The basis for this teaching comes from two passages in I Peter:
“He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark...” 3:18b-20a
“For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” 4:6
Lutherans recognize three creeds. We confess the two shorter ones frequently, the Apostles’ and the Nicene. The Nicene (unlike the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds) says nothing about Jesus descending to hell or to the dead.
In my first parish, a young woman who was not Lutheran at the time but who recently had married a man from that congregation asked me why I didn’t preach more about hell. She expressed concern that people might end up going there because I was not warning them about how terrible it was. I told her I didn’t know much about hell, which was true enough at the time. I’ve learned more about hell since then: not from taking classes or from studying scripture, but from living. “It has been said that religion is for people who want to avoid hell, but spirituality is for those who have been there.” I don’t know if this distinction between religion and spirituality is accurate, but I do believe that the longer we live, the more acquainted with hell we become: it goes with life’s territory.
Whether we believe Jesus actually descended to the dead or to a literal place called hell, more than likely all of us can affirm that Jesus descends again and again into the death and hell we know in our lives. Hell is a sense of God’s absence, a sense that life’s suffering is meaningless. Hell is any place or time in which we struggle to know, trust and share God’s love: on literal battlefields and figurative ones; in sickness; in our sins and the sins of others; in the accidents and misfortunes that overwhelm people with pain, guilt, grief and shame. There will always be enough hell to go around in this life. There will always be enough death in this life, too.
In a side chapel of the Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey, there is a painting on the wall that was created nearly seven hundred years ago, theHarrowing of Hades. It depicts Jesus, arms extended, raising Adam and Eve, literally pulling each of them out of a vault simultaneously, out of their graves. In his left hand, Jesus grasps Eve’s right wrist; in his right hand, he clutches Adam’s left wrist. Eve and Adam are not partners with Christ in this enterprise: they are not reaching up to him, Jesus is reaching down to them. They are being yanked out of the consequences of their disobedience and sin, death, by the victorious Christ. The message is clear: if the mother and father of all humanity are being rescued, so are we, their children. The power of God’s love in Christ trumps everything.
The affirmation that Jesus descended into hell or to the dead is a notion that has resonated profoundly within the church through the ages. It reminds us that Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil is total and absolute: not even the past - including the agesbeforeChrist’s coming - can stand in its way. All who have gone before can hear the gospel, and all who have gone before can be freed. Hell’s prison gates have been blown wide open by God’s grace in Christ.
Even when we feel hopeless and defeated, that is not our true situation. In the midst of our sin and mortality, Christ’s triumph is complete and final. When the creeds speak of Jesus descending from heaven to earth (to be born) and from earth to hell (between his death and resurrection), it is to the same purpose: as we confess in the Nicene Creed, “for us and for our salvation.” As St. Paul wrote, nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) Alleluia!