Hard Talk

The Descent

The picture of Christ visiting hell sits very uncomfortable with many in my religious tradition. Although the early creeds of the church taught that he – ‘was crucified, died and was buried’ and ‘descended in to hell’ before rising on the third day – some will not repeat or sing this line of the creed even if their chosen brand of church uses it. Other churches have deleted this statement from the creed altogether. Interestingly, in all my years of attending church, I have never heard this topic addressed.

The big concern some have is that they are not able to hold to the belief that Christ suffered in hell. However, neither the creed nor the scriptures from which the creed is drawn even suggest such a thing.

It is the apostle Peter who raises the spectre of this event –

‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.’

1 Peter 3: 18 -20 (NIVUK)

Peter seems to expand on this issue a short time later when speaking about our having to give an account to the eternal judge as to how we have lived our lives –

‘For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.’

1 Peter 4: 6 (NIVUK)

But is is not only Peter who speaks of this descent in to hell for the purpose of preaching to imprisoned spirits – Paul also refers to it –

‘When he (Christ)ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.’

(What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions (or the depths of the earth)? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

Ephesians 4:8-10 (NIVUK)

Pauls thinking here is of course connected to Psalm 68 –

‘When you ascended on high,
you took many captives;
you received gifts from people,
even from the rebellious –
that you,Lord God, might dwell there.’

In order to force these scriptures to ‘fit’ their theology many (some of whom are very clever people) have made highly dubious assertions that plainly fly in the face of what is actually said in these passages. And of course leaders in my tradition discount with a flick of the finger the traditions of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches who have a different opinion on this matter.

For me much of this remains enigmatic and mysterious and I do not claim any special insight or revelation on these scriptures. However, if we take at face value Peter’s assertion that – ‘the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit’, I find this very difficult to fit into the theology of my tradition. It would say emphatically, as I read in a recent article on the subject from a conservative evangelical perspective –

‘It doesn’t mean that some dead people got a second chance to be saved after they died, or that hell was emptied of all its inhabitants in some form of universal salvation.’

Perhaps not, who knows. However my immediate question is -‘what’s the point of preaching if there is no hope of repentance and salvation?’

To be fair the article went in to more technical detail and argument – but again much of it was forced to make the text fit with a theology – rather than the other way round. It certainly did not address the obvious question!

However – and it’s a big however, for me anyway, these scripture raise a much larger question regarding the matter of grace, forgiveness, justice and judgement.

How far will God go to forgive? How far will God fall to save? Yes, I can see him on his knees as he wraps his arms around a rebellious son, and yes I can see him washing the feet of sweaty dusty men, and yes I can even see him dying on a cross in pain and agony for my rebellion and sin – but I find it difficult to see him in the far country of hell itself.

Something else that happened shortly before Christ’s descent in to hell has recently shattered my concepts of righteousness, justice and judgement and has a bearing here I think.

Throughout the Bible and down to our own day there is, deep within every heart, a call for justice – for reparation – for judgement on wrongdoing. It appears to be written in to our DNA. But surely there can be no greater sin than to persecute goodness, to repay evil for good – to kill love! And yet the embodiment of love was crucified at the hand of man. But The Christ of Calvary did not, as King David in the OT, his own disciples and  a million others like them, cry out for vengeance or the execution of justice upon his enemies and murderers. He simply said – ‘Father, forgive them.’ (Luke 23:34). Please let that astounding truth  sink deep in to your spirit. I doubt we will ever fully comprehend it – and yet this is certainly not what we might have expected in the light of what had gone before the coming of the Christ.

Whatever you make of the verses we have considered for me the big question that remains is – how far will love go to redeem? And, if after dying to redeem, he descended into hell  in order to save – might he do so again? And if he might – how do I square that with the theology of my tradition as it relates to the matter of hell and eternal punishment? These are questions I have not resolved – but of one thing I am sure – the depth of the love of Christ is not only beyond my comprehension it also stretches far beyond my tradition and theology.

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