(36) . . . dead, and buried; he descended into hell

All the way through his dying, Jesus had trusted in God and in the power of truth and love, no matter what the cost to himself. At last one man had entirely measured up to God’s dream. Jesus was altogether worthy of everlasting trust and eternal life. He was just the one to become the Savior of all of God’s treasures. Although the destroyer’s attack on Jesus had left him hanging dead upon the cross, he was utterly victorious in the sight of God. That day the joy bells rang in heaven, and the celebration hasn’t ceased yet even on earth! “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Jesus was buried. Some brave and charitable men laid what was left of him in a tomb. When the authorities sealed up the big stone door, Jesus’ enemies gloated. That troubler had been disposed of at last. Good riddance to bad rubbish! But this world isn’t big enough to bury the fact that a Jesus had lived in it. The word of his mouth and the word of his deeds could not be buried as easily as his body.

Jesus’ downward descent from the eternal fullness of God did not stop with the cross and the tomb. He went right on down in the perishing as far as he could go without ceasing to exist-right to the bottom of being. Before Christ’s time the breakup of a man continued as long as a vestige of power remained of him, until all that was left of him was like a shadow cast by a dim light on a dark wall. The abode of the departed was sheol to the Jews, hades to the Greeks. The Anglo-Saxon word “hell” stood for a place of torture. The English had no equivalent word or idea for the abode of the dead, so the word “hell” was used to translate both the abode of the dead and the different idea of a place of torture. “Hell” stands in the Creed nevertheless for an uncanny realm of perpetual perishing and disintegration. Hell was a vague frontier borderland between the uttermost reach of God’s creativity and the silent abyss of sheer nothingness. It was where the lives of men ebb to their lowest and are suspended in a state of weightlessness, as it were. Into this dissolving obscurity all the past had passed on its way out.

I believe that Jesus, too, descended into hell. He endured the full pangs and bitterness of death. Whatever may be involved in dying, in any realms beyond our sight, Jesus underwent that, too. Wherever any of the departed ever got to, the Lord has gone to them. There is no forgotten comer of creation, no hidden crevasse or sunken depth into which he has not penetrated to recover the lost. We’ll never know what our Lord went through as he let himself go down, down as far as down goes. If I am in him, I shall never experience what it is to descend into hell. He died my deepest death for me.