How to even approach this classic affirmation of our Christian faith, which the church has professed in its creed for nearly two millennia? For those who are the followers of Christ it is quite too inexcusable to sentimentalize it, or profess it mindlessly. And for a society and culture whose dominant religion is something more like self-satisfied humanism, or secularism, it is scarcely even acknowledged, or even known, in our obsession with one’s entertainment-obsessed lives. All that, however, doesn’t mean that it is not a tragic, yet salvific reality at the very center of human history. It deserves, at least for those of us who are followers of Christ, some sober reflection.

One of the haunting descriptions of the human condition of those who are not followers of Christ is that they are those “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Such a description corroborates the findings of so many sociologists and psychologists, that we are a culture too often defined with a pathological loneliness. We consume ourselves with entertainment to escape that loneliness. So, it is, first-off, worthwhile remembering that these are the very people that God so loved that he gave his Son. And it is also worthwhile remembering that it was the mission of God’s Son to bear, on their behalf, the results, the guilt, of humankind’s God-rejection. He took, on our behalf, the nightmarish and infinite hopelessness, purposelessness, and emptiness of life without God.

Then, there is the image of those who persist in rejecting God’s goodness as being cast into the outer darkness, or the mandate given to the early apostle to “go turn men from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.” The emptiness of human life apart from any hope, or meaning, or acceptance is at the heart of so many psychological pathologies. So, we come back to the fact that God gave his Son, not to condemn us, or consign us to that darkness, but to rescue us, to open our eyes, to recreate us into our true humanity. And yet, our guilt and complicity in rejecting the light of God is real. As an old hymn expresses it: “Was it for crimes that I had done, he groaned upon the tree?”

It will not do, then, on this Good Friday to sentimentalize the crucifixion. Consider that he who knew no sin, was made sin for us, in order that those who receive him may be made again into their true righteous design before God. Consider—contemplate with tears—that on that executioner’s scaffold, it was not the physical suffering that was the most agonizing for Jesus. It was, rather, that in our place he suffered total darkness, total hopelessness, total rejection by both God and man, total silence—he was totally alone—he was abandoned by his closest intimates (with, note, the exception of the women who were his close followers, which is interesting). On that cross Jesus experienced the nightmare of darkness, silence, rejection, hopelessness, emptiness—he was alone “bearing sin and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood.”

That is just a glimpse of the meaning of: “He descended into hell.”

And our response?

“What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever!
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never,
Outlive my love for Thee.”

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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4 Responses to BLOG 3/30/18. “HE DESCENDED INTO HELL”

  1. margaret harris says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.So grateful for your thoughts.

  2. Jodi says:

    Stuck at home this Easter morning and I knew I would find a meaningful meditation for Easter here. Thanks Bob.

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