I WAS DEAD
During Holy Week we hardly give ourselves time to allow the reality of Jesus’ death to sink in. We move quickly from Good Friday to the Easter Vigil and there is no liturgical action for Holy Saturday itself. The time between his burial at sundown on Friday and the dawning of resurrection faith early on Sunday morning gets no particular attention.
But Jesus really did die. His life came to an end, he breathed his last and his body was placed in a tomb. I have always found the following verse, from the Book of Revelation, immensely powerful:
I was dead but now I am to live for ever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld (Revelation 1.19).
Jesus was dead. We believe so strongly, I suppose, that Jesus was not an ordinary human being that his death can seem like no big deal. An early Christian heresy asserted that Jesus did not really die but this is to deny the full human reality of his experience. (Nowadays we prefer to think that nobody really dies, speaking instead of them 'passing away' or 'passing over' but the Christian faith enables us to face death squarely in the face and call it by its name.)
Jesus dwelt in the kingdom of the dead. The earliest creeds speak of this as the ‘descent into hell’. This was not an invention by people who felt Jesus must have been up to something while his body was in the tomb. Belief in the descent into hell is based on New Testament texts which teach that his salvation is of cosmic significance, that ‘in the spirit he went to preach to the spirits in prison’. In the Eastern Church there are no icons of the resurrection which do not include this moment of Christ breaking open the doors of hell in order to lead the dead forth into freedom and life.
As an article of the creed the descent into hell is a mystery of faith and a moment in the paschal mystery. As such it teaches us something about God and about human salvation. It illustrates the lengths to which God is prepared to go to achieve the redemption of the human race. It teaches us that God was prepared to let his Son go into a far and foreign country, to the place of sin and death, to the place which is furthest from God, in order to save whatever could be saved within creation.
Saint Paul says that God made the sinless one into sin so that in him we might become the goodness of God. Jesus Christ, innocent and sinless, entered fully into a human experience marked by all the consequences of sin. He suffered and died. He came to know what alienation from God means. Jesus went to the borders of existence, to a place which is almost, but not quite, the place of non-being. It is as if — and I am stretching language here — God allows himself to be stretched and pulled apart in order to reach the last and least traces of what can be saved.
Jesus’ being among the dead also teaches us that the salvation he won is of cosmic significance. His salvation reaches ‘to the ends of the earth’ and his victory is acknowledged ‘by all beings in the heavens, on earth and under the earth’. The ends of the earth are not only every place and time but every aspect and corner of the human world, every relationship and group, every project and plan, every thought and desire, every darkness and desolation, every experience of emptiness and despair, every joy and delight, every confusion and distress, every disappointment with God or even rejection of Him, every experience of being God-forsaken — all of this is included in ‘the ends of the earth’. Nothing of it is now foreign to Jesus and so none of it falls outside the care of God.
God wants all people to be saved and Jesus, when he is lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to himself. My faith in the paschal mystery of our Lord allows me to hope that all people will be saved and that on the last day hell will be empty. I do not claim to know that it will be so but I hope there is nobody there. My hope is based on the love of God made visible in Jesus Christ, a love more powerful than death, victorious over sin and capable, it seems, of undoing all evil.
An early Christian story says that Jesus entered the place of the dead with his cross, the weapon of his victory. Having released all those who were inside he decided to leave his cross standing in the centre of hell, a sign that even those who pass that way do not find themselves in a place which is unknown to him.