44. Q. Why is there added: He descended into hell?
A. In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.
As I have been thinking, praying and talking through the Apostles’ Creed’s teaching on the descent of Jesus into hell, I was reminded of the Heidelberg Catechism by my brother, Jay. The Heidelberg is a statement of belief from the 16th Century that focuses on the comfort we receive as followers of Christ. Part of the Heidelberg’s role is to discuss the meaning of the Creed, point by point. The old answer to our question is worth spending a few minutes reviewing.
How would you answer that question? Why was this little phrase added into the Creed? Is it not enough to say that Jesus died, was buried and rose again? Is this not exactly how Paul lays out the gospel in his letter to the Corinthian church? And yet, for thousands of years the fathers of our faith have agreed that this is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.
Do you see how Martin Luther and his boys answered the question? Did Jesus go to hell to pay off a debt? To convert the undead? To sweat off a few extra pounds? To pay Satan a price that was demanded of us? Well, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, no- at least not fundamentally. Remember, this is a confession that assures us of the comfort that is found in a life that follows Jesus. If he went to hell for us, then he was purchasing a comfort and peace that could not be found by the death of his body. There is something deeper going on here.
Could it be that Jesus went to hell when he was abandoned by his Father? Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s teacher Karl Barth’s words:
(Hell) is a state of exclusion from God, and that makes death so fearful, makes hell what it is. That man is separated from God means being in the place of torment…The atheist is not aware of what Godlessness is. Godlessness is existence in hell. What else but this is left as a result of sin? Has not man separated himself from God by his own act? ‘Descended into hell’ is merely confirmation of it.
Does it give you comfort to know that the Godlessness Barth describes never has to be a part of our story? Jesus was separated from God so that we could be together with him. He has delivered us from the anguish of Godlessness. When we speak of Jesus taking on our punishment, what else could it mean than he was abandoned so that we could be wholly, totally accepted in him?
Is there comfort on the other side of a frightening doctrine? Why would we short-change ourselves of the boldness we have in facing all of life’s dangers? What is death, betrayal and abandonment when our God is with us and for us in the midst of the most gut-wrenching times?
This is not a promise that it will be easy or even that we have the smallest sliver of an explanation to our greatest pain. It is a promise that God is for us in these times. He walks this road before us, behind us and with us.
To be comforted we may need to sit with a disturbing doctrine for a while but if we are like even Jacob, we can wrestle a blessing out of the presence of the Lord.
Don’t lose heart. Christ has taken on even hell for you. Sit with that for just a moment.