One of the earliest statements of faith in the Christian church, the Apostles' Creed, describes the person and life of Jesus. The creed claims:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
There is a lot going on here. Creeds like these prevented people from saying wrong things about who Jesus was and what he did and does today.
In this post, I want to focus on one phrase:
"...he descended into hell..."
Our illustrations of hell make understanding this phrase difficult. We often think of fire, torment, devil(s) and Will Ferrell on a Stratocaster. But this is a more modern notion of hell, and likely not what was meant here.
In Jewish thought, people who died (whether good or bad) went to a place of darkness called Sheol. The person in Sheol was separated from God. In the Psalms, certain people (who are very much alive) describe their relationship with God as similar to a person in Sheol.
They felt separated from God.
When Jesus descended into hell, I believe that he experienced something similar. Matthew records Jesus' last words on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) In his death, Jesus cried out to God.
Jesus felt separated from God.
That separation took Jesus to the ultimate place of separation from God. Hell.
Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, has been to hell and back.
He has been to the depths of abandonment, and his love has shined a light into the dark corners of our loneliness and our forsakenness.
William Barclay, a twentieth century evangelical scholar, understood Jesus' descent into hell as having powerful implications for the world.
"...either in this life or in the life beyond death all [people] are offered the gospel of the truth and the love of God."
"It means that there are no limits in space and time to the grace of God...the grace of God operates in whatever other world and whatever other life there may be" (The Apostles' Creed for Everyman, 132).
To be clear, Barclay does not think this is a fact of the creed, but an appropriate dream of the believer. Wouldn't our witness be better if we had a dream, a hope, that all people are offered the gospel because of Jesus' triumph over death? What if we really believed that there was no limit in time or space to the grace of God?
What do you think?