Several years ago, a family I know well lost a daughter through suicide. She was in her late 20s and had become dangerously depressed. An initial attempt at suicide failed. The family then rushed round her. They brought her home, strove to be with her constantly, sent her to doctors and psychiatrists, and generally tried everything within their power to love and coax her out of her depression. It didn’t work. Eventually, she did commit suicide.
Looking at her death and their efforts to love her and save her life, one sees how, at a certain point, human love can be helpless. Sometimes all the effort, patience, and love in the world cannot get through to a frightened, sick, depressed person. In spite of everything, that person remains locked inside herself, or himself, huddled against love, unfree, inaccessible, bent upon self-destruction. None of us who have ever dealt with a situation like this have been immune to the deep feelings of discouragement, guilt, hopelessness and fear that ensue. Love, regardless of effort, seems powerless.
Fortunately, we are not without hope and consolation. We believe in the ultimate redeeming power of love, and in the power of a love beyond our own that can do that redeeming. God’s love is not stymied in the same way as is ours. Unlike ours, it can go through locked doors, enter closed hearts, and breathe peace and new life into frightened paralysed persons. Our hope and our belief in this is expressed in one of the articles of our creed: “He descended into hell.” What an incredible statement that is: God descended into hell. If that is true, and everything in Christ’s life and teaching suggests it is, then the very existence of an eternal hell is cast into doubt and the human heart has its ultimate consolation: Love will triumph.
We haven’t always understood those words to mean that, however. Mostly, we have taken them to mean that, between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended to some hell or limbo where lived the souls of all the good and just persons who had died since the time of Adam. Once there, Jesus took them with him to heaven. More recently, various theologians have interpreted this article of the creed to mean that, in his death, Christ experienced alienation from his Father and, thus, experienced in a real sense the pain of hell. Irrespective of the merits of these interpretations, the doctrine of the descent into hell is first and foremost a doctrine about love, God’s love for us, and the power of that love to go all lengths, to descend to all depths and to go through virtually every barrier in order to redeem a wounded, huddled, frightened, paranoid, alienated and unfree humanity.
By dying as he did, Christ shows that he loves us in such a way that he can descend into our private hells. His love is so empathetic and compassionate that it can penetrate all barriers that we construct out of hurt and fear and enter right into our despair and hopelessness. We see this idea expressed powerfully in John 20. Twice John presents the disciples as huddled behind closed doors, locked in because of fear. Twice John has Jesus come through the locked doors and stand in the midst of that frightened and depressed group and breathe peace into them. That image, Christ going through locked doors, is perhaps the most consoling image within our entire faith. Put simply, it means that God can help us even when we cannot help ourselves. God can empower us even when we are too weak and despairing to even, minimally, open the door to let him in. That is not only consoling, it is also corrective of a bad pelagian spirituality that many of us were raised on.
I remember a holy picture that was given to me as a child. I saved it for years and its message has haunted me always in my darkest times. The picture shows a man, huddled and depressed in fear, in the dark behind a closed door. Outside the door stands Jesus with a lighted lantern, knocking softly on the door. The door has a knob only on the inside, the man’s side. Jesus has no doorknob. He can only knock. Beneath the picture, and everywhere in it, is written the implication: Only you can open that door! Salvation depends upon your effort. That picture is not wholly without its merits, but ultimately what it says is untrue. Christ does not need a doorknob. Christ can enter closed doors. Christ can enter rooms and hearts that are locked out of fear.
The picture expresses a truth about human love. In the human arena, these are the dynamics of love; unless a heart opens from the inside, human love can only knock and it must remain outside. But that is not the case with God’s love, as John 20 depicts. God’s love can descend into hell. Unlike our love, it is not left helplessly knocking at the door of fear, depression, hurt and sickness. It does not require that a person, especially a sick person, first find the strength to make the initial move to open himself/herself up to health. In that lies ultimate consolation. There is no hell, no private hell of wound, depression, fear, sickness or even bitterness that God’s love cannot and will not descend into. Once there, it will breathe out the peace of the Holy Spirit.