The descent of Jesus (part 5)

This post continues a series exploring Raising Adam, Why Jesus Descended into Hell by Gerrit Dawson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3, 4, 678.  

Last time, we continued exploring our Lord's great transit of mercy -- considering the meaning and impact of several incidents in Jesus' three-year public ministry. We come now to what Jesus experienced on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, as he descended even further into our God-forsaken hell and death in order to lift us out of both. As Dawson notes, Jesus orchestrated these Holy Week events so that "his passion would occur at the feast of Passover. He would be the Paschal lamb. He would lead his people through the sea of death to the Promised Land of communion and life" (p. 60). Jesus' descent for us comes now to a great crescendo of sorrow and suffering on our behalf.

Entering sorrow

On Thursday evening of Holy Week, Jesus gathered his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem where he "symbolically gave himself in the supper before the powers enacted their will against him, showing that he was in control of events" (p.60). Here Jesus was beginning a rapid descent into betrayal, condemnation and execution. Though he was in sovereign control, these events were not played out with "cool calculation" -- Jesus' soul was being pierced with sorrow. We see this in the time Jesus spent following the Supper in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Christ on Mount Olive (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Gospels tell us that in the Garden, Jesus "began to be greatly distressed and troubled" (Mark 14:33). Dawson comments:
[Jesus] was agitated, unable in the moment to settle the burden pressing upon him. Feeling the urgency of the near future crashing in, Jesus did not want to turn his face to receive that blow. Jesus himself said, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death (Mark 14:34). His  very words echo Psalm 6:2-3, which goes on to plead, "Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?" (Ps. 6:4-5). Jesus knew what was coming, and it appalled him. 

Though Jesus already had experienced sorrow at the people's rejection of the mercy he brought them, 

now something more crept upon him: a sense of his Father's displeasure. He was becoming the wrath bearer. Not just the forgiver of sins, but the reason why his Father could forgive: he was the propitiation for sin. Jesus was taking on the sins of the world as if they were his own. (p. 61)

Dawson goes on to explain how Jesus was engaging within his own soul the choice he had made to become sin for us, thus receiving hell and all that means as the powers of evil would be unleashed upon him to the full. Jesus knew that the Father loved him, and that his freely given choice to give himself was an expression of the Father's love -- both for him and for all humanity. However, in the Garden, Jesus began to experience something quite dreadful, something new to him -- the horrific feelings that we, as sinners, have of God-forsakenness

Death of the heart

There in a garden full of olive trees and presses, Jesus began to experience the horrific mental, emotional and spiritual pressure -- "the interior aspect of Jesus' passion: the death of the heart, which precedes and gives meaning to the death of the body" (p 63). Indeed, upon entering the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told his companions he was "sorrowful unto death" (Matt. 26:38). Gethsemane represented for Jesus "the final temptation to turn from the horror and let the world go to hell instead of himself... The Father was with Jesus, but to Jesus, the Father was receding with the infinite distance of sin between, them" (p. 65). 

Jesus' descent into hell had begun. Dawson sees in the biblical account that Jesus' sense of the Father's love for him was slipping away. Fighting against the horror of those feelings, Jesus leaned on passages of Holy Scripture he had learned as a child. He also leaned on prayer: "Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). Jesus consecrated his will, and as he did so the feelings of God-forsakenness were replaced by a sense of peace -- the peace of resolution. Dawson comments: "The agony would persist, but it would be clear that Jesus was master even of the powers that bound him" (p. 65).

The road to Golgotha

Late Thursday evening, Jesus was arrested in the Garden, beginning a terrifying, pain-wracked period in which he was both severely beaten and ridiculed. Dawson comments: "Throughout his ministry, Jesus had borne... the transference of the people's hopes to him. Now he had to receive their visceral rejection without losing faith in his Father or his mission" (p. 66).

This time of terrible suffering and struggle came to a head at Golgotha on Friday morning when Jesus was nailed to the Cross. There he struggled for every breath through terrible pain and exhaustion. Experiencing the depth of human suffering in his body, Jesus also experienced the depth of human estrangement from God in his soul. And so Jesus cries out with words from Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). It's often pointed out that this Psalm ends with reassurance that God has, indeed, not forsaken this person. However, as Dawson notes, we should not overlook the reality that, on our behalf, Jesus suffered our sense, our feelings of God-forsakenness -- God abandoning us in our sin. In short, Jesus experienced the hell of our despair: "Crying out for comfort, he felt none. Begging for deliverance he was answered by silence from the heavens. It felt to Jesus that the Father had gone over to the side of his enemies" (p 67). Jesus was bearing the sin of the world and God's wrath against that sin: 

The sinless Christ stood in for helpless yet violent, lost yet enraged, sinners... On the cross, Jesus became sin (2 Cor. 5:21). As he did in symbolic anticipation in his baptism, now Jesus truly stood in for the sinner as a sinner. Though guilty of none of our sin, he received from us all that is abhorrent to his Father. He accepted our deeds, our neglect, our thoughts, our very core of sin as his own, though it sundered the intimacy he had cherished with his Father from all eternity. He went where we should go, alone, in dereliction and cried out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" For Jesus on the cross, the Father seemed to make no reply except to let it happen. As if he deserved every bit of it.... Jesus on the cross descended into the undeserved hell of god-forsakenness to save us. (p. 68)
Christ on the Cross by Dore
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 The Trinity on the Cross

The reality, of course, is that the Father did not abandon Jesus. Thus, we understand the Son's forsakenness on the cross as his experience -- his "horribly decimating experience of abandonment by his Father even though the bond between them was not actually sundered." In that sense we can say that it was the whole Trinity there on the Cross:

The heavenly Father and his son, Jesus, were together in the passion and together on the cross. More than to the wooden arms of the cross, Jesus was nailed to his Father's arms, or, as it were, to his will. Just as it is in eternity it is from the unutterable and joyful embrace between the Father and the Son that the Holy Spirit proceeds -- the gift of their mutual love -- so now and for all time, it is from that painful embrace of the Father and Son on the cross that the Holy Spirit flows -- the gift of both of them for us. (pp. 71-2)

Into your hands

Jesus cry of dereliction was not the last words he spoke on the Cross. Just before dying, he cried out (quoting Ps. 31:5), "Father into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). Though many see this as evidence that Jesus' sense of fellowship with the Father was restored, along with various patristic authors, Dawson speculates that Jesus' sense of dereliction continued through his descent into Hades on Holy Saturday. Jesus' committal of his spirit to the Father would thus be a statement of faith, despite his feelings of abandonment. Despite how he felt, "Jesus acted in fidelity and trust" as he continued "restructuring our humanity from faithlessness to fidelity" (p. 72). This is the process of re-creation to which Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 5:17.


As Dawson notes, in considering these matters we are gazing into what is "too deep and too high for us. Although invited by Scripture to gaze, we yet have the feeling of having invaded the privacy of the intimate relationship that is the Triune God" (p. 73). With that note of humility and reserve, we end this post, and will pick up the conversation from there next time.