Because today is Good Friday, I’ve decided to change the date and bring this post forward. It was originally written in 2007.
I had been pondering a part of the creed little used in the branch of the Church I grew up in: “He descended into hell” particularly in connection with Jesus’ words from the cross “it is finished” and “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
As to the descent, I am still not sure about the full meaning, But I now find great comfort and worth in the idea that our Lord descended as far as it is possible for a man to go in order to rescue us. If any be not rescued, it is not because they had sunk below some “crush zone” from whence no rescue was or is possible. God did not become an angel to get near us, or a Great Ruler, to lead our culture, or even an Important Person, but He became a poor man, with no place to lay His head, despised and afflicted. He did not stop there, but descended even lower to a criminal’s death, then still lower, until He had reached the very bottom of where a human soul could go. There is no person who has sunk so low that Jesus said he must let that one go as too far gone; none sunk so low but that our Lord descended still lower. He does not snatch us from above, but descends lower, and in rising, lifts us on his shoulders. He descended to the lowest depths, and from thence returned to Glory, leading captivity captive. He nowhere stopped short; there was no soul on whom the Light did not shine.
The other question is this: If Jesus still had the “descended into hell” part to do, why did He say from the cross “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” and “It is finished”?
Perhaps it is because THAT was the moment of victory- Yes, He descended still lower, but not as a condemned soul: He descended into Hell as an invader. In attempting to drag the hero in by force, satan (in his own interpreting of the events) took advantage of the incomprehensible descent of God into the incarnation. He trapped Him by the betrayal, used the fallen nature of Judas and the compassion and truthfulness of the incarnate Jesus to dig his claws into his feet, hands, side and head;
“Now I have conquered you- now I will drag the heir down to death and below. “If I indeed cannot rule in heaven, I can rule over heaven in my own realm, from my own throne.”
Such was his vision of the events of these years, and today, this “good Friday” as his day of triumph. It was not God’s vision.
As in judo, where one uses the very force of the adversary against him, so Jesus accepted the wounds of the great enemy. He accepted the pull, and the summons. But it was not as satan expected. At the moment of triumph (and satan thought the triumph was his own), at the moment of the Death, at the moment when it was finished, Jesus accepted the momentum with which satan drew Him, and descended deeper than death, into the kingdom of death. But satan’s force was used against him (as a judo throw), and his realm was penetrated by the King of Glory. Jesus went down, but with the victory won. He went down in triumph to lead forth all who would be rescued.
Thanks be to God.