(41) he ascended . . .

The Creed tells a story about the Son of God descending from heaven to this earth, then to the depths of death, returning here again, only to ascend once more into heaven. It assumes the existence of “heaven” and “hell” or “hades.” These “places” do not appear anywhere in the world view of our times. In biblical times, however, heaven was up there beyond the skies, and hell was down there in the bowels of the earth where all the graves joined up to form a great gloomy underground cavern. People’s imaginations had free play in furnishing details about the population and geography of these unseen realms. While I may not be able to accept much of the quaint imagery I have inherited from yesteryear, I still find it necessary to believe in some “higher” world and “lower” world, using “higher” and “lower” in nongeographical senses. Everybody knows what I mean when I speak of higher prices or a lower I.Q., of higher-ups or low-lifers. Until all things are absolutely equalized so that each thing is identical with everything else, we shall go on arranging them in scales of value and quality from high to low.

This being so, the essential meaning of the story of Christ’s epic journey from heaven to hell and back can be retained without being involved in any unacceptable imagery from an obsolete world view. In the world around me, there are obviously higher and lower forms of life. Human beings have a greater range of possibilities and much higher powers than the lesser animals. Plants are more limited still, and inorganic substances can do practically nothing by themselves. Now where are the upper and lower ends of this scale of being? How far down does existence go before it ceases to exist at all? When does light peter out into darkness, and sound become silence, and the last movement become still? In his prime a man can live with all the stops open on the wonderful instrument of his human existence. But eventually his powers decline through illness, old age, and the disintegration of death. He continues to perish physically and psychically until only the merest trace of his existence is left. This lowest state of being, whatever it may be, is what I mean by hades, or hell.

Working up the scale of being in the opposite and ascending direction, we move up to higher possibilities for human life. Who can tell how far up we can go? Light waves may exist and vibrate, but it takes something higher than light waves to see light and the things that light reveals. There is a realm yet higher than seeing: the realm of thinking about things. And higher than that . . . ? I know that there are sounds my ears cannot hear and light my eyes cannot see. Beyond the reach of my present powers there likely is an undetectable realm with ranges and kinds of being which I cannot as yet begin to conceive. Here there may be certain kinds of creatures (angels?) which are quite at home in this higher world, whose natures nobody would now understand. Such possible higher states of being beyond the edge of our map are what I mean by heaven. Heaven may be all about me, even in me, for all I know, but it is still out of reach. In heaven, God always has his own way because it is the highest and best way.

Using heaven and hell in these senses, the descent and ascent of Christ can become meaningful to a modern mind.