The most singularly consoling doctrine in all of religion is the Christian belief that Christ descended into hell.
Christ descended into hell. What is meant by that?
There is an old understanding that interprets the phrase this way: After the original sin of Adam and Eve, the gates of heaven were closed and nobody was able to go to heaven until Christ came and paid the price for our sin. But then, after Jesus died, in that time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, he went to that underworld place where all the good people who had died since the time of Adam and Eve waited and he opened up for them the gates to paradise. Christ’s going to that place of the dead (mythically imagined geographically, but theologically conceived of spiritually) was understood as Christ’s descent into hell.
However there is an even older understanding of this doctrine which, while not denying the essence of what was just said, interprets it this way: The descent into hell highlights something in the way that Jesus lived and died.
First of all, we see this in the way that Jesus lived and revealed God’s presence: We see in gospels, time and again, that Jesus goes into all the dark, taboo places and takes God’s light and love there. The ultimate dark, taboo place of course is hell itself.
And we see this most clearly in Jesus’ death: When we look at the way that Jesus died, we see that in his death he “descended into hell”, that he went into a place and space of utter alienation and complete darkness where he was, outside of everything except raw faith, completely cut off from community, life, and God. There, in that place where he was so utterly alienated and alone, he was able to breath out the spirit of God and of life.
What does that mean for us? Let me try to explain by using a series of image:
In the Gospel of John, the evangelist describes how the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples. He tells that the disciples were “huddled together in a locked room, in fear” and that Jesus (twice) came right through the locked doors, stood in the middle of them, and breathed out peace. These images are significant and powerful: “they were huddled in fear”; “Jesus entered through the locked doors”; “Jesus stood in the midst of them and said, ‘Peace be with you’.”
In St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, there hangs a famous painting, The Light of the World, by Holman Hunt. It shows Christ with a lantern, knocking on a door, waiting for it to be opened from the inside. A redacted version of this, made into a holy card, circulates in pious circles. It shows Christ, with a lantern, knocking on a door on which there is no door-knob on the outside. There is only a knob on the inside and there, huddled in fear, depression, and paranoia, stands a man who is obviously faced with the choice : Open the door and let Christ in or keep Christ waiting outside! The obvious implication is: Only you can open that door! The picture suggests that this particular man might be too depressed to be up to the task.
There is a legitimate challenge in this image: There are certain doors that we must open in order to let Christ into our lives. In another sense however, this is a bad holy card. If it’s right, then the Gospel of John is wrong because, after the resurrection, with the disciples huddled in fear inside of a room, Jesus does not stand and knock, waiting, saying: “Only you can open that door!” He comes right through the locked doors, stands in the middle of the circle of fear, breathes out the Holy Spirit, and says: “Do not be afraid! Peace be with you!”
Several years ago, some family friends of mine had a 19 year-old daughter who became severely depressed and attempted suicide. They rallied round her, took her to the best doctors and psychiatrists, and tried every possible way of having their love break through the shell of her sickness and alienation. It didn’t work. Eventually she killed herself. All the love in the world and all the best medicine and psychiatry could not any more penetrate inside her private hell. Her family could not “descend into hell” and open up for her the gates of life and community. They were helpless before her darkness, her hell.
But Christ can descent into that, and into every hell that can be created. That’s what the descent into hell means. There is no hell that Christ cannot penetrate, no locked door he cannot go through. When this young woman woke up on the other side of this life, I am certain that she found Christ standing in the middle of her huddled fear and loneliness breathing out the spirit of community and joy and saying: “Do not be afraid. Peace with you!”
Sometimes you don’t have to open the door!