The descent of Jesus (part 7)

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: 123, 4, 5, 6, 8.

Last time, we explored the significance for all humanity of Jesus' descent on Holy Saturday into the realm of the dead (Hades/Sheol). We now continue that exploration, looking at the significance of Jesus' ascent out of Sheol on Easter (Resurrection Sunday).

The Resurrection by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Descended to death in order to ascend to life

Reflecting on Jesus' Holy Saturday descent into Sheol on our behalf, Dawson notes that
the arc of the Savior's descent ended with a splash into the bottomless sea of death. His great transit of mercy took him beneath the depths of all our dying. He dropped out of his body, out of our time, out of any place we know, still unaware of his Father's favor or his victory over sin. Saturday marked the farthest reach of his descent. (p. 91)

The Psalter was Jesus' prayer book, and while in Sheol, he may well have prayed these words from the 139th Psalm:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psa 139:7-8)

Though (as Dawson suggests) Jesus was perhaps unaware of the Father's favor while in Sheol (and thus feeling abandoned), he continued to look to God in faith. The reality was that the Father never abandoned Jesus -- the communion of the Trinity remained "indissoluble," and the Holy Spirit delivered Jesus out of the realm of the dead by raising him through resurrection on Easter Sunday. Thus, these words from the 139th Psalm are included in an ancient liturgy for Easter Sunday: 

I awake, and I am still with you, alleluia. You lay your hand upon me, alleluia. (Psa. 139:18) (p. 91)

Dawson comments on Jesus' resurrection: 

By dawn of Easter Sunday... Jesus was afoot in our world, risen in a body no longer dead, but not merely resuscitated. He rose in a body transformed from subjection to decay (Romans 8:21) into a "heavenly dwelling" (2 Corinthians 5:2). He entered an embodiment rigged out for eternity. (p. 91)

Now resurrected, any sense that Jesus might have had on the cross, and in Sheol, of a rupture in his relationship with the Father, was seen to be an illusion, painful though it would have been, a pain far greater than any other human experiences in feeling a sense of separation from God. 

Everything changed (Sheol included)

Through the resurrection, the Father vindicated Jesus, showing Jesus himself, and all humanity along with him, that Jesus truly is the Son of God, the Savior of all the world! But what does that mean? Dawson answers by noting that Jesus' ascent from Sheol in resurrection accomplished many things. First, it brought about a restructuring of the entire cosmos and, as a result, "the very nature of death itself was altered" (p. 93). Before that event, when a person died, their human spirit entered the realm of the dead (Sheol/Hades). But through his death (including his descent into Sheol) and his resurrection, Jesus conquered death, and so, in victory, He proclaims for all to hear:

Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Rev. 1:17-18) 

With Jesus' resurrection, the doors of Hades and the chains that locked people there were broken, and since that time the curse of death no longer determines the destiny of the spirits of those who die. Dawson points out one of the results: When those who belong to Christ die, their spirits skip Sheol and go immediately to God's presence in heaven. As evidence, Dawson points to Paul's statements that "to depart" is "to be with Christ," and that to be away from our mortal body is to be at "home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:6; 1 Cor. 15:52). These disembodied human spirits, now with God, await the resurrection when the spirit will be reunited with a glorified body.

Jesus' descent into Sheol and his ascent out through resurrection also meant his victory over Satan -- the binding of the strong man mentioned in Mark 3:22-27. As Dawson notes, "Jesus plundered the evil one in the very 'place' where the evil one's power seemed most evident, the realm of death" (p. 93). A similar point is made by the author of the book of Hebrews: 

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb. 2:14-15)

Any basis for a fear of death is removed because Jesus conquered death -- a victory attested in our Lord's words of assurance: "Because I live, you also will live" (John 14:19). This assurance is the basis for the ancient triumphant Easter declaration: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and bestowing life on those in the tombs" (p. 94).

The Christ event (Jesus' incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension) also changed the very basis of our humanity. Before that event, when a person died, they died in Adam -- the first Adam. But since the Christ event, when a person dies they die in Christ -- the second (or last) Adam. The apostle Paul notes that in the first Adam, "sin reigned in death" but in the last Adam, "grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 5:21). 

The glorious reality is that because of what the incarnate Son of God accomplished on our behalf, as our representative, humanity has a new "head" -- no longer Adam, but now Jesus. As Dawson notes, Jesus "is humanity remade, and by the work of the Holy Spirit through faith, we can be relocated out of the old Adam into the last Adam" (p. 96). Here Dawson references both the objective (universal) and subjective (personal) aspects of humanity re-created in and through Christ. All humankind is included in who Jesus is and what he has done. Jesus is Lord of all, the new head of all humanity. That is an objective, universal truth. However, believing this truth and living into it is the subjective (personal) experience only of those who trust Jesus to be who he actually is, thus seeing themselves for who they, united to Christ, actually are. It would have been helpful if Dawson had devoted more space to clarifying this objective/subjective distinction.

Harrowing of hell

The transference of humankind from the headship of the first Adam to the headship of Jesus, the last Adam, and thus a freeing of humanity from the chains of Sheol (death) is illustrated in classic icons and paintings often titled The Harrowing of Hell. I've posted a few of these icons in previous posts in this series; below is one more. These images are, of course, only representations of a stunning spiritual reality, but note the elements: Jesus, standing in Sheol, reaching down to lift up Adam and Eve (representing humankind). Jesus standing atop (as victor) various emblems of death, including the keys to the locks that kept humanity chained to death. Note that Jesus stands atop the gates of hell, now formed into the shape of a cross. There is much to contemplate here as we worship the one who has the keys of death and Hades (Sheol).

Resurrection Icon (source unknown)