Lenten Devotional: March 9th
He descended into hell
We know on Good Friday Jesus was nailed to the cross. We know that on Easter Sunday, God raised him from the tomb. Where was Jesus on Saturday?
Here it is: "He descended into hell."
What could be worse than a grisly crucifixion on a hill outside a city? Well, after all that, "he descended into hell." One theologian says for just one day Nietzsche was right and "God is dead."
If this part of the Creed, this bit of the story, bothers you; you are not alone. The descent into hell is easily the most controversial clause in the creed. Many Christian denominations have replaced it with the less daunting "he descended to the dead." Others leave the phrase out altogether.
Long before the time of Christ, the psalmist wondered, "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from you presence?" Then he confesses, "if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there." In other words Christ will not abandon the palmist, even in hell.
The biblical passage people most commonly think of when "descent into hell" comes up is the third chapter of First Peter. In explaining what Christ was up to in the underworld, First Peter tells us that (after Jesus' death in the flesh) he descended in spirit to make a proclamation to those who were in prison – specifically to those who lived during the time of Noah – who did not obey God and were destroyed in the flood.
Did you notice who God goes to visit with good news? Basically, this text tells us that Christ descended to preach the Gospel to those who were so wicked that an aggrieved God once thought them worthy of destruction. Christ descended to preach the gospel to those who had been placed beyond hope.
One of my favorite biographical movies of all time is Walk the Line, the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. If you have watched this film, or if you're familiar with the story, you know that Johnny Cash, the enormously talented singer-songwriter, became addicted to amphetamines early in his career. Under the influence of these drugs, his life spiraled out of control. He lost his family. He was kicked off his own musical tour. At the very bottom of this plunge into the depths, the movie depicts Cash trying to host a Thanksgiving dinner for his parents and the family of June Carter, the woman whom he loved.
At this meal, Cash gets into silly and yet terrible argument with his father over the fate of a tractor that is mired in the mud nearby. Johnny explodes. He runs from the house, and fires up the tractor. He is determined to free it from the muck – determined to prove to his father that he is not a failure.
His guests choose this awkward moment to start leaving. Of course they did. After all, their host looked like a mad man. His red, red eyes were crazy desperate as he sat astride his John Deere – a bucking, smoking, sputtering beast. He was a man possessed.
Sensing that he might flip the tractor and kill himself, June's mother, Maybelle, says to her daughter, "You should go down there to him, June." June replies, "I am not goin' down there."
Seeing the pain on her daughter's face, and knowing the affection that she had for Cash, Maybelle responds, "Honey, you're already down there." And with that, June descends.
From that moment on, June and her family stuck by Cash's side as he struggled with the demons that tormented him. They flushed his pills. They mopped his brow as he sweat and swore and lied to try and get more drugs. They drove off a dealer who tried to make a fresh delivery. Years later, Cash would credit them with saving his life. It wasn't easy. It was hell. Is it any wonder that June Carter wrote the lyrics to the song that Johnny would make famous, Ring of Fire?
I fell in to a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames went higher. And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire. The ring of fire.
When we proclaim "he descended into hell" in the creed, we are proclaiming that we will not abandon hope; for our Lord stands with us and even the people beyond hope, speaking the good news of God's grace, even in the burning ring of fire.
Rev. Brent Barry, Pastor, NorthPark Presbyterian Church