He Descended into Hell

(A Sermon for Holy Saturday)

Read: Lamentations 3:31-40; Psalm 69; I Peter 3:18-4:6; John 5:24-30

Hell. Polite Christianity does not know what to do with the doctrine of hell, so most people avoid the subject and the word altogether– at least until they hit their thumb with a hammer or experience someone rudely cutting them off in five-o’clock traffic. Even our confession of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed has an ambiguous history. Some versions have “he descended to the dead” – which is not so much an avoidance of the word “hell” as it is an attempt to accurately describe the words Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek, which both literally mean the realm of the dead. Others versions of the creed take out the phrase altogether.

But in today’s church, no one wants to tackle hell – maybe because previous generations of Christians seemed to tackle nothing else. Who has not heard salvation reduced to those bound for heaven and those bound for hell? Who has not heard the street corner preacher, so eager to damn sinners to the place of gnashing teeth and flaming agony; so enthusiastic about using fear as the evangelistic weapon of choice? Today’s church often rightly seeks to correct this judgmentalism that seems overly fond of damning and extremely short on loving. The result has been polite Christianity that tries to avoid the subject of hell altogether, so we take it out of our teaching, we take it out of our sermons, and we take it out of our creed.

Today – I am putting it back – because this phrase in our confession: “he descended into hell” – is one of the most glorious, most mysterious, and most hopeful parts of the creed. For one thing, this confession tells us that Jesus really did die. Death – the universal human condition that none of us can avoid. Karl Barth said it this way: “We are all rushing to the grave, rushing to our past, the past in which there is no more future.” From dust, we have come and to dust, we shall return. People with terminal illnesses and bleak prognoses often accept this truth more readily than the rest of us. As one cancer patient said to her healthy friend who was depressed and concerned, “You know you are dying just as much as I am … I am just doing it quicker at the moment.” Sobering.

So Jesus didn’t just pretend to die; Jesus didn’t just experience a three-day sleep. Jesus shared even this with us – the pinnacle of human frailty, the fear of what comes next, the silence of the grave. But the creed says more. Not just that Jesus really died, but that he descended into hell – to the realm of the dead. Why is that Good News? Why should that matter to us? Because it demonstrates Jesus’ relentless love. Jesus was not content to just descend to earth, being born of the Virgin Mary. He went the extra mile, the furthest distance – leaving no rock unturned, no darkness un-illuminated. He descended into hell because God’s love knows no bounds – not even the gates of hell and death can keep this God from knocking, searching, and loving.

Wow. Amazing love; pursuing grace; unfathomable forgiveness that descended so far into the abyss of our sinful rebellion and its ultimate consequence in death in order to raise us to the heights of God’s love and grace. Listen to the hope in our passage from Lamentations: The Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. Here is the Shepherd who was not content to just leave the 99 in search of the one; but the Shepherd who left the living in search of those who had died. Here is the Lover who does not stand before the altar vowing “till death do us part,” but who proclaims to all who are rushing to the grave that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even death will part us – not life, nor death, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth [not even the deepest depths of hell], nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

He descended to the dead. Why is this so important? Because Jesus’ assault on sin and death is now complete. Jesus, the One whom we sing of as never “saying a mubblin’ word” during his trial and persecution is now the one who, according to I Peter and John 5, steps into the pulpit right smack in the middle of Satan’s lair – proclaiming life and hope and good news to anyone who has ears to hear.

This is Jesus on the offensive; Jesus walking right smack into the teeth of evil and proclaiming it destroyed by love. Jesus had put Satan on notice long before. He had stood in the synagogue and proclaimed that he had come to set the prisoners free. What jailer could be more vicious than Satan? What jail cell could be more permanent than death? Don’t ever let someone tell you that there is no hope for people in jail – because today’s Scripture proclaims that there is hope for people in hell! If Good Friday was Satan telling Jesus to “go to hell” then Holy Saturday was Jesus taking him up on it – go to hell? Don’t mind if I do! Scoot over and let me use these gravestones as a pulpit. I can hear Jesus’ Holy Saturday sermon even now:“Death, where is thy victory. Death where is thy sting?”

So I can hear some of you thinking. Ok. I get it. He descended into hell. Jesus really died. Jesus really loves – so much that he will literally go to hell and back, for us. Jesus really did conquer Satan and the powers of sin and death. Good news. Actually great news – but what do we do with it? Why does that matter? What does this part of our confession have to do with my life?

In the words of Lamentations, let us test and examine our ways and return to the Lord. Though Jesus relentlessly loves and pursues us, he is also the righteous Judge who judges both the living and the dead. We do not have to fear what can kill the body, but we do need a healthy fear of what can kill the soul – namely, our rebellion, our sin, and our unwillingness to hear and respond to God’s word. Jesus proclaims to the spirits that were in prison – and those who hear will live. Turn. Turn from death to life. Turn today. Turn from the dead-end road you are on to the way of salvation and the pathway of righteousness. Repent, turn, test, examine. God awaits our response.

But don’t just turn. Hope. Dante imagined a sign to the entrance of hell: “Abandon hope, all who enter here.” Jesus has torn down the sign. There is no despair, no depression, no darkness, no sin, and no amount of brokenness that this Jesus cannot touch today. This is the Jesus who descended into hell – so don’t think he can’t descend into whatever is hurting you, sickening you, alienating you, depressing you, or causing you to despair. If you find yourself in a living hell today, look up, reach toward the heavens; look to Jesus the source and strength of your salvation. Once you had no future. Once you were just another person rushing to the grave. But now you are God’s. Now you are invited to rush together with Jesus into God’s light, God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, and God’s all-encompassing love.

Turn, hope, and follow. Jesus said to his disciples: “follow me.” Jesus descended into hell. Follow him. Let the church resolve today to follow Jesus into the teeth of evil; to step boldly into what look like godless places knowing that because of Jesus, they are no longer godless. Because Jesus descended into hell, we can bring light to the darkness of places, proclaim life in the middle of a cemetery, preach release in the downtown jail, announce hope to the despairing, and embody life in the midst of death. Jesus descended to the depths in order to raise us to the heights. Praise God for such love. Thank God for such hope. Turn to Jesus, place your hope in the One who destroyed death – the last enemy, and follow Jesus to the places in this world you thought might be godless. They are not. Jesus goes before us. Jesus – thanks be to God – descended into hell. Amen.






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