Saturday, April 5, 2014

What the Hell Does It Mean to Say "Christ Descended Into Hell?"

I grew up Southern Baptist and knew nothing about the historic creeds of the church.  Southern Baptists once were adamantly "non-creedal" declaring that each believer had the freedom to interpret scripture with guidance from the Holy Spirit and the church community.  (Of course, when fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention all sorts of doctrinal statements were enforced.)  It wasn't until I took theology and church history classes in college and seminary that I even learned what the Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed were.  To this day, I have never committed them to memory and couldn't recite them if I tried. 

When I joined the United Church of Christ, I did so in the northeast in the heart of the Congregationalist part of our denomination.  Our Congregationalist forebears may have recognized various creeds and confessions throughout their history, but over time they too were fiercely protective of both an individual's and congregation's freedom of belief.  Sure, I read about the other denominations that merged to become the United Church of Christ--including the two founded by German immigrants: the German Reformed Church and the German Evangelical Synod of North America, but it really didn't register that I had joined a denomination in which some churches took the creeds seriously.

Although I serve now a congregation that had been Congregational before the UCC was formed in 1957 and just across the state line in Kansas there are a bunch of Congregational churches that were founded back when John Brown and his abolitionists came to Kansas, most of the UCC congregations in Missouri were originally part of the German Evangelical Synod of North America.  These "Evangelical" churches founded by German settlers eventually joined the German Reformed Church (centered around Pennsylvania) to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church (often abbreviated E&R).  They took church unity so seriously they kept uniting and joined with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the UCC.  (You can read a good summary of the UCC's history here.) Yet, if you go into most UCC churches in Missouri on a Sunday morning, you will be walking into a former E&R church.  Many of those churches--unlike the Congregational ones--will recite the Apostle's Creed each Sunday.

The idea of reciting the Apostle's Creed in a morning worship service may not seem strange to you if you grew up Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or even United Methodist but it still seems completely alien to me.  If I had to do it in a service, I would probably be looking over my shoulder for the Inquisition coming to check and make sure I really believed what I was saying.  If pressed, I would have to admit that no, there's some stuff here I don't believe--at least not in the traditional way it has been understood for centuries.

I was talking recently to a fellow UCC minister--who like me came from another denomination that didn't recite creeds.  He serves a former E&R congregation where they say the Apostle's Creed each week.  Every time they get to the part where it says, "he descended to the dead," he thinks to himself, "What the hell does that mean?"  A more traditional version of the Apostle's Creed says, "He descended into hell," although it should be noted the creed has had numerous forms throughout the centuries.
The United Church of Christ is quick to state, our denomination declares the historic creeds and confessions and even scripture itself are "testimonies of faith" not "tests of faith."  The UCC declares that "God is Still Speaking" and just because the historic church understood God in one way using particular language in a given historical context, that does not necessarily mean we are bound today to that same understanding of God.  With "God is Still Speaking" in mind, I've been thinking about this peculiar phrase regarding Jesus Christ descending into hell or the realm of the dead.  I may not feel comfortable reciting the Apostle's Creed as a part of my own worship, but plenty of other UCC folks do each week.  Perhaps there is something for me in it as well.

First, a very quick overview of how this phrase has been interpreted in church history.  There's not much in the New Testament to help us understand what this phrase means.  1 Peter 3:18-20 says the following: "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey. . ."  That is vague to say the least and not much help.  Later on, in 1 Peter 4:6 it says, "For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does."  That's still not particularly clear.

In the early centuries of the church, interpreters understood these verses along with other passages of scripture such as Psalm 139 (which says, "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.") to mean that after Jesus Christ died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead (Hell or possibly the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible concept of Sheol or the Greek underworld) to give those who had died prior to Christ's coming a chance at redemption.  These interpreters argued whether Christ offered a chance at grace to all the dead or just to the righteous dead, but many began to believe that between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Christ dwelt in the depths of the earth preaching to the dead.

Some in the early centuries of the church understood Christ to be the triumphant victor who had defeated death and then raided death's domain to free the souls trapped inside.  Reformers like John Calvin balked at a literal descent into Hell and interpreted it figuratively to mean that on the cross Christ took on the full wrath of God, even experiencing condemnation to Hell to save humanity from having to bear such a punishment. 

I like what contemporary theologian Keith L. Johnson writes, "When we confess that Christ 'descended into hell,' we are not merely making a claim about an event that happened in the past; we are making a claim about the One who lives in and through us in the present."  Instead of getting stuck on the particulars of what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday--if anything happened at all--what if we interpreted confessional statements like this to mean that the presence of God is capable of being with us whatever trials we face.  Even when we walk in the "valley of the shadow of death," God goes with us.  Not even death is a barrier to prevent God from coming to us. 

When I visit someone who is homebound or in a hospital bed, I often read from Paul's letter to the Romans where he writes in chapter 8: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  It is a comforting thought to remember that not even death can keep God away from us.

I guess if I think about it in these terms, saying this bizarre line in the Apostle's Creed doesn't seem so bad after all.

Grace and Peace,

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