He Descended into Hell…or did he? And why would he? And why does it matter?

He descended into hell.

Troubling. Confusing. Mysterious. True? For two millennia the answer from the church seems to have been “yes.” Today, we are not so sure.

Did Jesus not say to the thief Today you will be with me in paradise?

Did he not cry out with his dying breath It is finished?

How, then, could we have been wrong all this time? Did John Calvin, in haste to get to the part about predestination, skim over the final words of Jesus? Did Martin Luther have the pope on his mind when he translated the story of Jesus from Greek to German? Could he have missed the dying words of Jesus? Was St. Augustine checking out some pretty girls when he came to the crucifixion scene in all four of the gospel accounts (he was a self-confessed sex-addict, as we might say today!)? How could the cloud of witnesses have been wrong for thousands of years about something as simple as the sequence of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus?

Every Sunday, all around the world, many of us confess these four words in the middle of what is called The Apostles’ Creed. For centuries (something like twenty centuries), we have stood up and confessed the ancient words that, while not in the bible, we agree to be a summary of the faith we have been born into through the water and the word.

But could we be wrong? Could they have all been wrong?

Then answer of course, is “yes.” Since when does our discovery that a chorus of scholars and leaders has been wrong all along qualify as front-page news? You would have thought we learned our lesson with Copernicus, or Columbus- or even Luther himself. As long as we are breathing we have possibility of being wrong- in fact, we have the propensity for it. Since when does a collection of idiots guarantee a lack of idiocy? Of course the Fathers could be dead wrong for including this statement in so sacred a document. In fact, the odds are that they were wrong, given our simple arithmetic.

The next question, however, becomes is it not also possible that we are wrong? We are under the same curse as our fathers, after all, right? It could be that our judgment is flawed. Once again G.K. Chesterton’s words ring true:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

If we are willing to call two thousand years worth of our fathers thought crazy, we had better have a good reason!

But is it important, this whole discussion about a little statement like He descended into hell? Why should we, who have our own personal demons to do battle with on a moment-by-moment basis, spend our time worrying about whether or not Jesus went down to hell for us?

Here again is one of our questions with it’s own answer.

We, who do battle with the demons of pride, lust, shame, anger, gluttony, self-hatred and addiction would be the first in line to investigate the triumph of Jesus over the hell, right? We have all been in the place where we feel abandoned- cast out of the presence of God. This little phrase provides proof that Jesus has taken this abandonment on his own head for us.

We, who do not have time for such trifling phrases are the ones who need them most.

Let’s take a few weeks and talk about Jesus’ descent into hell for us, shall we?

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