Some years ago a young woman I knew, a university student, fell into a severe depression and attempted suicide. Her family, startled by what had happened, rallied around her. They brought her home and for the next few months tried to provide her with all the best that medicine, psychiatry, the church, and human love could offer. They tried everything, but they couldn’t penetrate the dark hole into which she had descended.
Four months later she killed herself. She had descended into a private hell into which nothing on this side of eternity could any longer enter. She was powerless to open up her own soul for help. I suspect that many of the reasons for her depression were not her fault. She didn’t will herself into that paralysis, circumstance, wound, and bad health put her there. All of us know similar stories.
What’s to be said about this? Does our faith have any answers?
There is a particular line in the Apostles’ Creed which is deeply rooted in the Gospels that does throw light, major light, on this issue. It’s the phrase: He descended to the dead. Or, in some versions: He descended into hell. What is contained in that phrase is, no doubt, the most consoling doctrine in all of religion, Christian or otherwise. What it tells us is that the way Jesus died and rose opened up the gates of death and of hell itself. What does that mean?
This is not a simple teaching. There are different layers of meaning inside of it. At one level, it expresses a Christian belief (which itself needs much explanation) that from the time of the fall of Adam and Eve until Jesus’ death, nobody, no matter how virtuous his or her life might have been, could enter heaven. The gates of heaven were shut and could be opened only by Jesus through his death. There is an ancient Christian homily (now part of the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday) which paints a picture of this as you might see depicted on an icon. It describes both why nobody could go to heaven before Jesus’ descent into the underworld and how Jesus, once there, wakes up Adam and Eve, and leads them through a now open door to heaven. But that’s an icon, not a literal picture.
The Gospels insert this into a wider concept. In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, we see that is important that Jesus goes into every dark, taboo place on this planet and take God’s light and healing there. Thus Jesus goes into morally taboo places, the singles bars of his time. But he also goes into all other dark, taboo places, particularly into sickness and death. And, for first-century Judaism, there was no place more taboo than death itself. The belief was that human beings were created to enjoy God’s presence in this life and not to die. Death was seen as an evil, the consequence of sin, an alienation from God, a place separated from heaven, with no door in between. Hence to say that Jesus “descended to the dead” was the same as saying he “descended into hell”. All of the dead were considered as separated from God.
One of our major beliefs about Jesus is that, by entering death, he precisely entered this underworld, this Sheol, this place of separation and alienation, this “hell”, and, once there, breathed out God’s light and healing in the same way as, in John’s Gospel, he went through doors that were locked by fear and breathed out peace and forgiveness. By going through locked doors and breathing out peace, he both descends into hell and opens up the gates of heaven.
And this is not something abstract, a creedal statement to be believed. It is still happening. There are many forms of death, Sheol, the underworld, hell. Suicidal depression, incurable bitterness, a wound so deep it can never heal, helplessness inside of a life-destroying addiction, a beaten and crushed spirit, an alienation too deep and long-standing to be overcome, any of these can leave us huddled in a locked room, in some underworld, in some private hell, too weak to open the doors that lead to love and life. The gates of heaven close for many reasons.
That was the case for the young woman described above who killed herself. She was in Sheol. But, I don’t doubt for a second, when she woke on the other side Christ came through her locked doors, stood gently inside of her private hell, and breathed out peace.
In that ancient homily describing Jesus’ descent into hell, as Jesus wakes up Adam he says to him: I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. … Arise, let us leave this place! No doubt this is what Jesus said too to this young woman, and then he opened the gates of heaven for her just as he once opened those same gates for Adam and Eve.