Summary: 1. Jesus joined humanity in mortal life and death. 2. Jesus frees us from fear of loss. 3. Jesus frees us from fear of abandonment.
APOSTLES’ CREED: He Descended into Hades
When we talk about the Apostles’ Creed in membership classes, I ask people if they have questions they want to talk about. Almost always, someone asks about the phrase, “He descended into hell.”
What does that mean? Honestly, I don’t know exactly what the phrase meant to those who first included it in the creed. I would rather talk about what we do know, and what it means for us.
(Note to preacher: For a summary of what it might have meant originally, see https://journal.rts.edu/article/he-descended-into-hell/)
JESUS JOINED HUMANITY IN MORTAL LIFE AND DEATH.
Two different Greek words are sometimes translated as “hell” in the New Testament.
One is “gehenna,” which might refer literally to the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, just outside of Jerusalem, where some Israelites sacrificed their children to heathen gods! (See Jeremiah 19:4-6.) Later, garbage was burned in the same valley, giving the image of a hot place, a place of fire and smoke. Jesus said that in gehenna, the fire never goes out, although of course he might have been speaking figuratively. His point was that people should take seriously the possibility of eternal punishment, in a very nasty place.
The original word in the creed is not “gehenna,” but “hades.” Hades, or sheol in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, was thought to be the abode of the dead. Because of that, some churches translate the phrase in the creed as, “He descended to the dead.” That is not a bad translation, but it is redundant, since the creed already said, “He was crucified, died, and was buried.”
Hades was not necessarily a place of punishment, but it was a rather hopeless existence. The Hebrew view of the place of the dead was expressed in Psalm 88:10-12, “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?”
Hades represents the great unknown of death. When we take our last breath, we go where we have never been before. Every mortal confronts the same question: What existence will I have after death?
Jesus went into that great unknown. He went there as a mortal man, subject to death and the grave. When he went there, he broke the power of the grave to hold us in fear.
Hebrews 2:14-15 says it this way: “Since the children have flesh and blood, Jesus also 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.”
Without Christ, would you fear death? At the very least, we might fear the unknown. What if everything I have gained in this life is lost? What if death means being lost in a shadowy, unfulfilling existence? What if I end up with some bad people, or in a really bad place. Without Christ, we wouldn’t know.
Hebrews implies that those fears might spill over into our lives on earth, so that people might be “held in slavery by their fear of death.” What we fear in death is what we fear in life: loss of possessions and achievements, separation from relationships, and the specter of evil coming to us.
How can we overcome fear of death, and live with confidence? We trust God, of course. Yet God was not content to sit safely in heaven, telling us not to be afraid of death. He became one of us, facing every one of the things we fear, in his life on earth. Then he went through death, into the reality beyond. When he rose from the dead, he destroyed our fears.
Let’s take a closer look at our fears, in death and life, and how Jesus frees us from fear:
JESUS FREES US FROM FEAR OF LOSS.
I learned something last week: Some coffins come with drawers, so that people can be buried with things that were meaningful to them. In addition to things like Bibles or pictures, some people are buried with booze, or even computers or phones that they seemingly couldn’t live without. As the website iMortuary explains, “There is something truly moving about knowing those we love will be near the things that mattered to them for all of eternity.” Of course, as we all know, we can’t take it with us.
Ecclesiastes talks about all the things people try to accumulate in their lives, only to lose them at death. Pleasure disappears. A king leaves a legacy which is not appreciated. A man amasses wealth, only to leave it to another who does not deserve it. The writer concludes that death makes everything in life meaningless. Even self-identity is lost: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6)