Wednesday, April 18, 2007

To Hell and Back: a devotional

The Apostle’s Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.


First of all you should know that the Creed as we know it today was not settled until around the sixth century. However, it has as its form and structure the very teachings of Jesus Christ to his apostles as he was taken up to “sit at the right hand of God, the Father, almighty.” It is no accident that it is called the Apostle’s Creed. It has, in fact, at its very nucleus the core teachings of those who had seen the resurrected Lord. Its form is the very name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

With that, I want to focus on two lines. First, “He descended into hell.” Where did it come from and what does it mean? It came from scripture as well as the ante-scripture beliefs of first century Christians. As H. Ray Dunning points out, it could be that this literally meant that because of Christ’s becoming sin for us he was to also suffer the consequence of eternal separation from God as well. 2 Corinthians 5:21 states the case, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Of course, we are Wesleyan so we need to at least see what Wesley says about it. His interpretation is that “He became a ‘sin offering’ for us.”

However, the word hell here is also about the “place of the dead” or “Hades.” In the Creed it is a way of emphasizing the passion of the Christ, as Dunning says, “experiencing the reality of his suffering and death, which he tasted for every person.” Hebrews 2:9 (NRSV) says, “but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Luther said, “No one ever feared death so much as this Man.” This death and descent into hell is not so much about the division between us (in sin) and God, but about the division between God when Jesus screams out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

None of this is very devotional and I was trying to read this Creed devotionally, so I will try to do that now. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says (with William Placher as his mouth piece), “Yes, the descent into hell did come after Christ’s death, but it was not a victory march but a movement into radical loneliness and darkness in solidarity with those who have rejected God.” Thus the words of the Psalmist are proved, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

The second line I want to look at is particularly because we are in the Easter season. We are celebrating the part of the Creed that is the victory of us all. We cannot merely stop at the descent and not see it through. There is no darkness God will not enter, no hell he is afraid of, there is not lengths he will not go to in order to reconcile his children. He is truly the Hound of Heaven. He is the Christ who will go to hell and back to save his people. This is the radical, life-giving atonement of God that is entirely about his love for us and desire for communion with us: first incarnation, then death, then resurrection, and he will come again. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. This is truly something to devote our lives to.


Anonymous said...

Great thoughts here! I spoke as a part of an ecumenical service at the Lutheran Church on Good Friday. The Lutheran pastor told us that one year he entitled his Good Friday message: "To Hell with Jesus." It does make sense if you view it through these thoughts.

Evan and Julia said...

That's fantastic. There was kind of a shock as I presented this devotion to our staff when I said, "He is the Christ who will go to hell and back to save his people." It was fun.