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Holy Week and the Harrowing of Hell

March 29th, 2010 · 3 Comments · Sermon Bin

“Why Do We Confess that Christ Descended into Hell?”

1 Peter 3:17-4:6

Palm Sunday

March 28, 2010

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

©Scott Black Johnston

17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. 4Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), 2so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. 3You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. 4They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme. 5But they will have to give an account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. 6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

This is the Word of God; for the People of God.  Thanks be to God.

Today, on Palm Sunday, we begin to tell our central story.  It is the story that we hold in trust for the world.  Our most sacred story starts, interestingly enough, with a political rally.  It starts when an unlikely candidate for higher office, a humble teacher and healer, enters the capital city.  He rides into Jerusalem and is greeted by colorful displays, waving greenery, and loud cheers.

Of course, like most political figures, this man ends up disappointing his supporters.  What is remarkable, here, is that this happens in five quick days.  On Palm Sunday, the crowds offered him King David’s throne, by Good Friday, they fitted him for a barbed crown and a cross.

The early Christians told this part of the story in a celebration called the TriduumTriduum as in three days.  The three days began with Maundy Thursday—when worshippers gathered (like we will) to re-enact the Last Supper.  The second day of the Triduum was Good Friday—a solemn observance that would take Jesus from the trial, through the crucifixion, to the laying of his body in the tomb.

We are all pretty familiar with those two days.  It’s the identity and purpose of third day in the Triduum that would probably stump us in a trivia game.  It’s the one that has gotten lost in the dust of history.  Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday!?  I can see the objections forming in your heads.  “No way!  We don’t need another worship service this coming week.  Come on; it already seems like too much.”  Especially when you consider that by the end of Good Friday everything has been said.  Seven last words… Right?  If Jesus is in the tomb, what more is there to do, but wait (and take a few deep breaths) until the first rays of light on Easter morning?

Well, actually, according to the early Church there was something going on between the final drum roll on Friday and the opening trumpet peal on Easter morn.  They believed that something important was happening in the life of God on Holy Saturday—something that we confess whenever we affirm the Apostles’ Creed. [1]

You remember how it goes.  “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into hell.”  There you have it. That’s what happened on Saturday.  After the suffering, the dying, and the burial on Friday, we claim that (on Holy Saturday) Christ descended to the depths of hell.  Didn’t those early Christians picked such fun things to celebrate?!

If this part of the Creed, this bit of the story, bothers you; if you were the person who asked this question… you are not alone.  The descent into hell is easily the most controversial clause in our profession of faith.  Many Christian denominations have replaced it with the less daunting “he descended to the dead.”  Others leave the phrase out altogether.  Why?

A few years ago I was leading a seminar in Oklahoma City, on (of all things) the subject of hell. A white-haired man approached me after my lecture.  Looking me straight in the eye, he declared, “My Jesus did not descend to hell.”  He went on to explain that while he was indeed a member of a church that used the “descent” in the Creed, he had, for the past forty years, held his tongue when the congregation got to that point in their confession.  His rationale for four decades of silence was straightforward.  “God,” he asserted, “would not send Jesus into the torment reserved for the Adolph Hitlers of the world.”

In many ways, it is hard to argue with this response.  Many of us already have difficulty contemplating the crucified Jesus, how can we possibly imagine Christ subject to the white-hot flames of hell?  Or if hell, for you, is not so much a literal place, not some Dante-like, fiery realm filled with torture devises and demonic inquisitors—if hell, for you, is simply the worse thing you can imagine on earth—you still might ask, what good can come of picturing Christ there?

When talking about “the descent” it is difficult (in today’s world) to avoid thinking about the phrase, “War is hell.”  However clichéd it may be to connect combat with hell, somehow this phrase continues to express an important truth; so much so, that even when soldiers have been certain that their cause is just, they still describe the bloody fury of battle as “hell.”  The danger, the fear, the eruptions of fire, the hailstorm of bullets and shrapnel, and (in the quiet that follows) the terrible sight of what explosive steel can do to the bodies of friends, enemies, and civilians.

Over time, artists (playwrights and poets, photographers and painters) have tried to capture scenes of war for those of us who have never experienced the inferno of combat.  Perhaps the most famous of these artistic renderings is Pablo Picasso’s mural “Guernica.”

If you have ever studied “Guernica,” you know that there is quite a story behind it.  On April 27th, 1937, Adolph Hitler did a “favor” for his friend Francisco Franco, the general who was leading a rebellion against the Spanish Republic.  For almost four hours, the German Air Force “practiced” dropping incendiary bombs on a source of resistance to Franco, a little Basque village in Northern Spain—Guernica.

The stark black and white photographs that witnessed to the aftermath of the bombing prompted Picasso to paint this disturbing work.  In his mural, “Guernica,” Picasso’s audience is assaulted by a jumble of tortured shapes.  The entire village in the painting has been twisted by explosions.   Buildings, animals and people have been deformed by the violence.  Still, in the midst of these distortions, we can pick out recognizable images: an agonized woman holding a limp child, a mutilated horse bleating in pain, a severed arm clutching a shattered sword.  It is as stark a picture of hell as I can imagine.

If I correctly heard my white-haired friend, the one who skips the “descent into hell” when he says the Creed, I find myself sympathizing.  I do not want to paste “my Jesus” into this scene.  So, I wonder what our Christian forerunners had in mind when they insisted on the including the “descent to hell” in the Creed.  Is this really something that we ought to confess anymore?

The biblical passage that people most commonly when the “descent into hell” comes up is the third chapter of First Peter.[2] In explaining what Christ was up to in the underworld, First Peter tells us that (after Jesus’ death in the flesh) he descended in spirit to make proclamation to those who were in prison—specifically to those who lived during the time of Noah—those who did not obey God and were destroyed in the Flood.

It is a curious audience that Jesus goes to visit.  Isn’t it?  Basically, this text tells us that Christ descended to preach the Gospel to those who were so wicked that an aggrieved God once thought them worthy of destruction.

Scripture gives a startling answer to today’s question.  Why did Christ descend to hell?  Well, Christ “descended” to preach the Gospel to those who had been placed beyond hope.  Now, how is that good news?  Do we really want to confess that our Redeemer’s first act after being crucified was to go on a preaching junket to hell?  Do we want to picture Jesus among the dead and the damned?

On January 27, 2003, various diplomats were giving statements about a possible war in Iraq, at the headquarters of the United Nations just across town.  During those statements, the copy of Picasso’s “Guernica” that hangs at the entrance to the chambers of the U.N. Security Council was covered with a blue cloth.  When asked about this, the U.N. press secretary explained that the blue cloth provided a better backdrop for the television cameras that would film interviews in that space.  But later, another diplomat owned up to the fact that if someone was giving an interview about a potential conflict in the Middle East it would not be appropriate to show them speaking in front of a background of screaming animals and people.

Hmm.  Not appropriate?  I wonder.  Do images of hell somehow test the truth of our words?  Is the furnace of the inferno something that purifies our speech?  If so, then perhaps the most difficult test that anyone can face is to speak the truth in hell.  Perhaps that notion is at the heart of a creed that locates our Savior after his death with those whom we would consider hopeless.  In other words, at the very moment this coming week when God seems most silent—“Jesus was crucified, dead and buried”—the creed tells us that the proclamation of the Gospel goes on… in the most unlikely of places.  Is that true?

One of the more interesting biographical movies in recent years is Walk the Line—the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.  If you have watched this film, or if you are familiar with the story, you will know that Johnny Cash, the enormously talented singer-songwriter, became addicted to amphetamines early in his career.  Under the influence of these drugs, his life spiraled out of control.  He lost his family.  He was kicked off his own musical tour. At the very bottom of this plunge into the depths, the movie depicts Cash trying to host a Thanksgiving dinner for his parents and the family of June Carter—the woman whom he loved.

At this meal, Cash gets into silly and yet terrible argument with his father over the fate of a tractor that is mired in the mud nearby.  Johnny explodes.  He runs from the house, and fires up the tractor.  He is determined to free it from the muck—determined to prove to his father that he is not a failure.

His guests choose this awkward moment to start leaving.  Of course, they did.  After all, their host looked like a mad man.  His red, red eyes were crazy desperate as he sat astride his John Deere—a bucking, smoking, sputtering beast.  He was a man possessed.

Sensing that he might flip the tractor and kill himself, June’s mother, Maybelle says to her daughter, “You should go down there to him, June.”  June replies, “I am not goin’ down there …”

Seeing the pain on her daughter’s face, and knowing the affection that she had for Cash, Maybelle responds, “Honey, you’re already down there.”  And with that, June descends.

From that moment on, June and her family stuck by Cash’s side as he struggled with the demons that tormented him.  They flushed his pills. They mopped his brow as he sweat and swore and lied to try and get more drugs.  They drove off a dealer who tried to make a fresh delivery.  Years later, Cash would credit them with saving his life.  It wasn’t easy.  It was hell.  Is it any wonder that June Carter wrote the lyrics to the song that Johnny would make famous, Ring of Fire?

I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
and the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire.

According to Dante, the gates of hell have an inscription above them that reads:  “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”  “Not so!” said June Carter.  “Not so!” said the community of First Peter.  “Not so!” say we Christians during this holiest of weeks.  We will not abandon hope; for our Lord stands with us, speaking the good news of God’s grace, even in the burning ring of fire.


[1].  Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross & Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

[2] See J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London: Longmans, 1950), pp. 378-383.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Judy BriggsNo Gravatar

    I learned something – why Peter says Jesus went to hell – to preach, to make the descent, for others. Your story about Johnny Cash says something about going down to be with our friends in their troubles and torments, to give them courage and hope, to bring them back. This is grace from God’s agents – clergy, doctors, trusted friends, co-workers, and renewals.

  • Gregory C. FaulknerNo Gravatar

    Scott, so thoroughly found comfort and truth in your good telling of what we confess with Christ’s descent. So good to hear a good sermon by a good preacher; your words gave me hope.

    We hope y’all are well and are still hopeful for a reunion.

    Wishing you a glorious Pascha, Gregory

  • SBJNo Gravatar

    Thanks Greg, dear pastor, old friend,

    I wish you stamina this week, and a bright Easter dawn.

    Yes, we MUST get together soon!

    Scott