Christian folk around the globe celebrate this week as Holy Week, and will somberly observe this coming Friday as: Good Friday, i.e., the day that Jesus was executed by a collusion of the Roman government and the religious authorities of Jerusalem. The community of his followers would, within a few years, affirm that in that act: “he descended into hell.” Hell? The post-Christian inquirer might respond: “What is hell?” Or: “What in the hell is that all about?” Or: “Who the hell cares?” But … there lingers always that mystery of death and what lies beyond … that won’t go away.

If we probe a bit more deeply into the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ execution on a Roman execution device, … it is not so much the physical agony that should capture our attention, though that is beyond imagination—but many humans have been tortured and killed in agonizing ways. No, what grips the (at least my) imagination is his cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What was going on here? Imagine, if you can, total darkness, total hopelessness, total silence, total rejection … and no one responding, total meaninglessness, total emptiness—just a haunting dark void, … and then, maybe, we might come a bit closer to understanding what was communicated in the creed: “He descended into hell.”

This is not an idle inquiry. It is commonly understood that the fear of death is one of the major anxieties that lurks in the psyche of most of humankind. Some persons are quite cavalier about it and attempt to show contempt for death. Others try to use cosmetics on it to make it seem less final. But our quest to live longer and postpone it show that it is always lurking out there. Check this interesting contribution from one of the early Christian writers: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

That fear of death has roots all the way back to the beginning of the story recorded in Christian (and Jewish) scriptures. Humankind was created in the image of God, to live in joyous and total intimacy with their creator, in harmony with each other, in harmony with the creation, and at peace with themselves … until there came that episode when they were tempted to declare independence of their creator … so that they could be gods themselves. Now being ‘god-players’ may sound tempting, but it is an illusion that is unconvincing—though it persists in those lives that have no sense of purpose other than self-fulfillment. Humankind is given the gift of life, but that life is a mystery, and even the most optimistic scientific minds, seek to unravel the mystery while trying to discover its secret, are themselves subject to death. This is the background, of God’s great love in rescuing his human community from their folly, and from the resulting death, by coming in flesh and blood in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to reconcile his human community from the consequences of their alienation—and that included Jesus taking upon himself their encounter with death, total separation from God: hell.

That last week of Jesus’ life is revealing. He was rejected by both the throngs, and by God. Rejection by God and man. Derelict on the cross. “Surely he has born our griefs and carried out sorrows, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him.” “He descended into hell …” and that in order that he might rescue us from the folly of trying to be our own gods, … and giving in its place such great hope, and the absence of the fear of death by his Easter resurrection (which is just around the corner), …  and with it such great deliverance from the fear of death (and hell). Is that thrilling news, or what?… (And, note: to reject all of that as sentimental religious poppycock … is also an act of faith, alas! And it leaves us with the unanswered questions and mysteries.)

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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