The descent of Jesus (part 8)

This post concludes an exploration of Raising Adam, Why Jesus Descended into Hell by Gerrit Dawson. For previous posts in this series, click a number: 1234567.    

In concluding his book, Dawson offers this summary:  
In the events from cross to resurrection, Jesus opened up the prison of Sheol. Jesus traversed the lost lands of the realm that follows dying. Jesus hazarded this sojourn in order to blaze a road to life in the trackless desert. He plumbed the inky abyss of separation from God in order to shine in the place where once no light could penetrate. Jesus made hell unnecessary and no longer inevitable. Now he is the experienced guide as he takes us into everlasting life. (p. 103) 
Dawson is pointing out both the objective and subjective implications of Jesus' great transit of mercy -- his journey of descent and ascent. In an objective (universal) sense, that journey delivered all humanity from the headship of Adam to the headship of Jesus, thus changing forever the trajectory of humankind and the entire cosmos. In a subjective (personal) sense, that altered trajectory is being experienced by those who, trusting in Jesus, actively share, by the Holy Spirit, in Jesus' own love and life. Dawson then explains three aspects of this personal experience as it pertains to what Jesus accomplished in his descent into Sheol on Holy Saturday:

1. Deliverance from soul-emptiness

In the lives of individuals, Jesus recapitulates his historic journey of descent into Sheol. He does so by entering people's lives through the Holy Spirit, lifting them up out of their personal "hells" and transferring them into the resurrection life that is theirs in union with him. This transference is the miracle of of regeneration (being "born again"). According to Macarius (a 4th century Egyptian desert father), 
each heart is a tomb. Each soul is dead and therefore every person is the very terrain of death. Each person in Adam is bound and captive... In His own person [Christ] enters into two quarters, into the depth of hell, and into a deep gulf of the heart, where the soul with its thoughts is held fast by death, and brings up out of the darksome hole the Adam that lay dead. (p. 105)
The apostle Paul made a similar point in one of his letters to Christians in Corinth: "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). By the Spirit, Jesus continues to deliver people out of hell -- out of soul-emptiness -- into the glorious light of the children of God.

Pentecost by Restout (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

2. Deliverance from the loneliness of dying

Death is absolute loneliness and Jesus, by his descent into death (Sheol), resolved that loneliness. Christ experienced our death to the full in order that we need not have to be alone -- we need not fear dying, we need not fear the total loneliness and dreadfulness that is called hell. Dawson comments:
Having been abandoned on the cross, [Jesus] experienced an aloneness so total that he was a soul without even a microscopic scrap of love. Yes, he still existed... but his every awareness in Sheol spoke not of connection but rejection. He knew the despair of utter failure; the end of this is only aloneness. That, paradoxically, is why our existential loneliness may be assuaged. For now we cannot go where Jesus has not gone. We cannot die more forsaken then he did. We cannot fall into a deeper hell then he experienced. (p. 108)

Because of what Jesus experienced on our behalf in death, hell is overcome -- or, more precisely death (which previously was hell) is no longer, because now love dwells there. Because of Jesus, death's grip on humanity is broken, "Christ has shattered the cell doors of Hades" and, therefore "we don't have to stay in the lonely, personal hell of our sin" (p. 108).

3. Deliverance from the sorrow of life 

Jesus' suffering on our behalf, through his descent through the cross into Sheol, transforms our experience of suffering. As Dawson notes, "Jesus sojourned through the despair of unredeemed humanity so that by arising he could truly affirm that his hope, which endured beyond hope in the place of no hope, runs deeper than all our sadness" (p. 111). Because we are joined to Christ by the Spirit, when we suffer, when we experience the sorrows that so often are part of this life, we do so in  communion with Christ who has suffered for us and with us. Jesus, our High Priest, takes up our sorrow, our despair, in his intercessions before the Father, doing so as one who has already "borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (Isa. 53:4) in his redemptive work. As Dawson notes, "Jesus ministers to us out of his own experience of suffering" (p. 110). Because this is so, when we suffer, we are able to identify with Christ -- we learn a bit about what he suffered for us. "When we suffer, we find points of contact with events of his life and find ourselves closer to him" (p. 111).

Remaining questions

As Dawson brings his book to a close, he addresses a few questions that might remain in the minds of his readers. Here is a brief recap of two of those questions (see the book, including its two appendices, for more):

1. What happens to those who lived before the incarnation?

Before Jesus' life, death (including his descent into Sheol), resurrection and ascension, all who died (with perhaps a few exceptions) departed this world into Sheol/Hades (the realm of the dead). Some did so trusting God would rescue them from death (e.g. Job 19:25; Heb. 11:19) though none understood fully how or when this rescue (redemption) would occur (Eph. 3:5). Scripture seems to indicate (and patristic tradition confirms) that in visiting the spirits of the dead in Sheol (the realm of the dead), Jesus made known both who he was as humanity's Redeemer, and how he was accomplishing their redemption, opening the gates of Sheol and so conquering death. It is generally understood that with that revelation, Sheol ceased to be the state of the dead, and all who placed their trust in Jesus at that particular time entered Heaven (intimate communion with God). In is in this way that what Jesus accomplished not only applies going forward, but reaches back all the way to Adam and Eve to include all who have or will live and die. In his Letter to Mary van Deusen, C.S. Lewis makes this related comment:
The doctrine of Christ's descending into Hell and preaching to the dead: that would be outside time and include those who died before He was born as Man. I don't think we know the details: we must just stick to the view that (a) All justice and mercy will be done, (b) But that nevertheless it is our duty to do all we can to convert unbelievers. (p. 114) 

2. How does all this impact the mission of the church?

As implied by Lewis' comment above, the church is called to share in Jesus' continuing mission to the world by calling people to place their trust in their Redeemer and to follow him, thus experiencing personally (subjectively) the reality that they have been saved by Jesus from death. Dawson comments:
[As followers of Jesus] we are to follow the lines of his great transit of mercy toward the world. That is the only way to experience vibrantly the spiritual ascension of being joined to his rising. Paradoxically, the way up to Jesus now ascended follows the way down to the least and the lost. (p. 116)

Our mission as the church is thus to "descend" with Jesus into the darkness being experienced by people who do not yet know who they truly are in Christ -- people still experiencing a personal "living hell" -- a condition of abject loneliness, emptiness and bondage to sin.

The final word

There are, no doubt, many unanswered questions about the state of the dead (what theologians refer to as the intermediate state), both before the Christ event, and now following it. Scripture does not give us a lot of detail about Holy Saturday, but what Dawson wants us to understand is that Jesus did descend all the way into death in order to conquer it on our behalf, and so set us free. In that we take comfort. In that we rejoice!

Let us now close this series quoting from an Easter sermon given by John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople who died in AD 407:
Let no one fear death, for Death of our Savior
Has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled
By encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with,
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O Death, where it thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!


For additional information on this topic see the following: