Summary: The fifth phrase of the Creed: "He descended into hell. On the third day he arose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sittith at the right hand of God the Father Almighty"
UPS AND DOWNS
We’re approaching the close of the first part of the Apostles’ Creed...the section that mostly deals with the nature of Jesus’ life and death. As I mentioned in the introductory sermon, there are several very old versions of the Creed, and they have some differences between them. Most of those differences remain in the backlog of history, but one of them remains current so that in different churches today you will hear an added line that the United Methodist Church today does not use: “He descended into hell.” Some of you have asked me about it specifically, so I wanted to briefly address that issue before going to the rest of the phrase: “On the third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
So what’s with Jesus going to hell? The oldest versions of the Creed do not have that line, and it got inserted somewhere along the way in response to the Scripture reading from 1 Peter which talks about Jesus, after his death, preaching to the spirits in prison. Sometimes you may hear it read “He descended to the dead.”
There are basically three ways that the line has been interpreted. The simplest is that it is saying about Jesus’ spirit what has just been said about his body: His body was dead and buried, and his spirit, likewise, followed the path of the spirits of the deceased...going to the realm of the dead. The second interpretation is more directly linked to the first Peter passage. Those interpreters believe the line was meant to support that Scripture and answer the issue of fairness for those good people who died without ever seeing the promise of the Messiah be fulfilled. In this version, Jesus...between his death and resurrection...pays a visit to the likes of Abraham, Noah, Moses and the rest of those who had gone before, preaches the Gospel to them and brings them with him into the Kingdom of God.
Still others, supported by John Calvin, say that because Jesus died taking all the sins of the world as his own, his spirit endured the same fate as any other sinful spirit and that Jesus actually went to hell and suffered there. Probably because the Church could not agree on an interpretation and because that phrase was not in the earliest versions, the United Methodist Church decided to leave it out.
The interesting thing to me about the rest of this phrase is that Easter is just one of many things on a list. “On the third day he arose from the dead.” The Creed doesn’t end there, it is just one more statement among the others. If you have seen the Passion, you have some idea of the nasty shape Jesus was in by the time he got to the “dead and buried” part. Who could fathom resurrection after that?
It is one of the things that sinks in when you really focus on the brutality of what Jesus endured. Some of those who doubt the resurrection say that Jesus didn’t really die. That he took some sort of drug that made him seem dead...that slowed his metabolism way down...and that the drug wore off in the tomb and he got up. I don’t believe that, but even if that were the case, nobody is going to take a beating like Jesus did on Friday, and on Sunday morning be out and about looking like a gardener doing his day’s work, whether he had actually died or not.
The Creed asserts that Jesus was actually dead and buried and that he actually arose from the dead. If you add in the line about Jesus descending to the dead, these sentences move Jesus all over the map...he is lifted up on the Cross, he is down in the grave, he descends to the dead, he rises from the dead, he ascends into heaven, where finally he gets to sit down. Up and down, down and up...Jesus is on the move.
Of course the Creed was written to set out the doctrine of the Church. From that point of view, these sentences are merely telling us what the Church believes happened to Jesus. But, as I want to ask of all of these doctrines, so what? What practical difference does believing about all these ups and downs make? How does believing in Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension make my life any different than someone who doesn’t?
One of the critical moves that St. Paul makes in his New Testament writings is in making the claim that the life of Jesus is tied to our lives. Not only did he in some way take our sins upon himself when he died, but his resurrection and ascension are also about our resurrection and ascension. Paul says over and over that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead then we can’t expect to be either, and he goes as far as to call Jesus the new Adam. Jesus replaces Adam as the model for our life and death. Where Adam modeled sin, Jesus modeled perfection. Where Adam was given the curse of death, Jesus is given the gift of life. Where Adam is cast out of Paradise, Jesus is welcomed back in.