As a child, I was fascinated by one part of the Apostles’ Creed: Jesus descended into hell. Part of the intrigue was that “h-e-double-hockey-sticks” was a Class 2A swear word for the Lutheran side of my family. Its presence in the context of church was startling; in the hymnal’s order of worship it even appeared with an asterisk, directing us to the alternate phrasing “descended to the dead,” which I assumed was used by the less spiritually intrepid.
The phrase stuck with me enough to spark interest when my oldest brother came home from college with a copy of Dante’s Inferno complete with diagrams, but as a theologian I haven’t spent a great deal of theological time with hell (insert joke about academia here). The Screwtape Letters rendered me more paranoid than holy, and the sheer imaginative energy Hieronymus Bosch poured into depicting hellish tortures dismays me. That squeamishness isn’t merely about finding hell unpleasant. In the gospel of Mark the disciples are faced constantly with the question of whether they will be motivated by fear or faith. While I surely believe in the reality of sin and death, I also believe faith is a trusting participation in Christ’s redemption rather than a fear-based placation of a punishing God.
A few years ago, though, a friend inquired into my theological opinion on the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ lyrics: “If you wanna to get to Heaven, you got to raise a little hell.” Such a deep, meaningful, pop culture question is like turning on the bat signal, and I began my response by reflecting again on the Apostles’ Creed.
First, and perhaps most traditionally, Christ liberated the righteous men and women who lived before the incarnation. Theological explanations differ, but generally these faithful are described as being in sheol or limbo rather than in the depths of torment. Christian apologists in the church’s first centuries (and in later ones, too) tried to reason through why the incarnation occurred at a certain point in time and not another. The Apostles’ Creed seems to reflect a different aspect of that theological question based on Christianity’s roots within Judaism: were men and women who lived before Christ, who were both revered for their faith and also caught up in sin, redeemed? St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily makes an invitation that bears thinking about in relation to that question:
“If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.
He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.
He both honors the work and praises the intention.”
Chrysostom’s homily is a rich invocation of Matthew 20: 1-16, and his words point us to the creed’s affirmation that God’s salvation is both born within time and unbounded by it.
Second, Christ’s descent to the dead is a statement about his full humanity. Dei Verbum 2 describes revelation as our invitation from God to share the divine life of the Trinity; sin interrupts and disintegrates that vocation to such a degree that we may despair of its fulfillment. Christ’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” and his entry into hell joins his human experience to our own broken communion with God. In defending Christ’s full humanity, Gregory of Nazianzus promoted the idea that what is not assumed in the incarnation with regard to our human nature is not redeemed by God. In other words, if Christ does not completely take on our human nature, then human beings are not fully saved. More positively, we are saved from the forces of sin and the power of death because Christ experienced the deep deprivation of goodness and life that is hell.
Third, Christ’s entry into hell speaks powerfully of divine mercy. God does not stand aloof from our brokenness but instead overcomes sin and death by refusing to abandon us to it. Catherine of Siena writes:
“O eternal Father! O fiery abyss of charity! O eternal beauty, O eternal wisdom, O eternal goodness, O eternal mercy! O hope and refuge of sinners! O immeasurable generosity! O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk [with desire] for her salvation. She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You have clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that you could not have come.” (The Dialogue, Chapter 75).
God’s invitation to join in the divine life is extended through the incarnation, an act of inexorable solidarity that reveals salvation as a journey of mercy that knows no cheap-grace shortcuts through hell. Christ is God’s mercy embodied, and Catherine reminds us of the sustaining hope that God desires our salvation so entirely that hell itself cannot prevail.
“For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. For a dead person has been absolved from sin. If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more: death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once and for all, as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourself as dead to sin and living for God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 6: 5-11).
We join in Christ’s death and resurrection in the waters of baptism, and in the Eucharist we enter time and again into the paschal mystery. These sacraments call us through death to a resurrected life for God. If God’s mercy is our salvation, our “Amen” is a graced and lived communion of mercy, a word that is spoken and a hand that is extended within earthly hells. Our discipleship of the messiah who raises hell is our refusal to overlook suffering, but instead to participate in the mercy that is our own hope for eternal life. Our imitation of Christ requires us to see with God’s eyes, to recognize the full humanity of those trapped in torture, to enter into death’s despair with the life-giving compassion that is itself a sacrament of salvation.