The Descent - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends, 

Pete Powell asked last Sunday about a phrase in Susan Bock’s “Affirmation of Faith for Epiphany,” which we’ve used for the last couple of months.  The phrase “who went down to darkness” is reminiscent of the phrase “He descended into hell” that’s found in the Apostles’ Creed, which we’ll be using throughout Lent.

The earliest form of the Apostles’ Creed dates from about the year 140, but the phrase “descended into hell” did not appear in the creed until the mid-seventh century.  The familiar phrase continued in most traditions until fairly recently, when the phrase “descended to the dead” or “descended to the place of departed spirits” replaced it.  Early on, the Methodists dropped the phrase altogether.

So, what does it mean?  I wish there were a clear, simple answer, but there’s not.  Most agree that it refers to the time between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection, refers to what we’ve come to call Holy Saturday.  He was dead.  Did he go to Gehenna, the Hebrew word normally translated as “hell,” the place of eternal damnation, of fire and torment, from which no one escapes?  Did he go to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל), “in the Hebrew Bible a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God”?*  Hades (Ἅιδης) is the Greek equivalent.  The King James Version of the bible translates Gehenna, Sheol, and Hades all as “hell.”

Why would Jesus go there?  The long-taught but now somewhat out of favor theological proposition called “The Harrowing of Hell” offers one answer.  It asserts that Jesus went to hell in triumph so that he could bring salvation to the righteous who had gone before him.  Martin Luther puts it in these words:  “We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” 

A contemporary Methodist puts it much more simply and, for me, more compellingly: “It means there is no part of human existence to which Christ did not ‘descend.’”   Or, as we will sing in Eastertide:  “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed.”

There is no place where the love of God cannot and does not reach.  That’s Good News in these often dark days.

—Jim Holmes

*It’s worth noting that, in Jewish traditions, Sheol is generally understood as a temporary state of being