Sermon from August 30: “He descended into hell.”

“He descended into hell.”
Pentecost XIII (O. T. 22); August 30, 2020
I Peter 3:18-22

One of those books that everybody knows something about but few people actually read is Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first part of which is called “Inferno.” At the beginning of Canto III is the inscription over the Gate of Hell:

Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My Maker was divine authority,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.[1]

Perhaps at some point you have heard that last line, “Abandon every hope, who enter here.” Images of the entrance to Hell may not have all nine lines inscribed over the gate, as described by Dante, but they usually have that last one: Abandon every hope, who enter here.

One of you asked me to preach on the line from the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” I want to talk about that briefly, and before finishing make a connection between what Peter says in the Scripture I read to you about Jesus in Hell and a reality that touches most if not all of us.

There are two things I can tell you about that line from the Apostles’ Creed that I hope will be helpful to your faith and your life in God. The first is emphasized by the way the line comes across in more modern translations of the Creed; they say, “He descended to the dead.” When we say the Apostles’ Creed and we claim that Jesus “descended into hell” we are claiming that he was really dead. That’s why I chose the other Scripture you heard this morning (John 19:31-37). In writing about blood and water coming from Jesus’ side, the Evangelist is making absolutely certain that we know, without a doubt, that Jesus was dead. Ever since the Resurrection there have been those who have claimed that Jesus was not really dead; they claim that people thought he was dead when they laid him in the tomb, but he was really comatose and he recovered.

The main problem with that claim is that if Jesus was not really dead, then he was not really raised from the dead. And if Christ is not truly raised from the dead, then we are living a lie. We believe that eternal life is in Jesus Christ; we believe that he is our living Lord; we believe that he has blazed the trail to the Kingdom of God. All of that is a lie if he was not really dead. And so the Creed makes the claim – as the Evangelist makes the claim – that Jesus was really dead. And now he isn’t!

The other thing to tell you about Jesus going to Hell draws on what I read to you from I Peter. Peter describes the spirit of Christ preaching to the “spirits in prison,” presumably the spirits of the dead. Now, think for a minute: what’s the point of preaching to the dead? The purpose of preaching is to urge people to put our faith in God, to trust in God for salvation in Jesus Christ. Why say that to the dead, unless there is a chance for them to repent and be saved? And that is classically described as the Harrowing of Hell: that Jesus went to Hell, and preached to the spirits imprisoned there. Jesus broke down the gates of Hell not so that he and a conquering army could get in – all he had to do to get in was to die – but he broke down the gates of Hell so that the people inside could get out.

Let’s go back to Dante for a moment. The inscription over the Gate of Hell is a lie. Do not abandon every hope, who enter there. In “Inferno,” Canto IV (52-63), Virgil tells Dante that a Great Lord had come to Hell many years before and carried off a host of people; he came and made them blessed. And later on, as they continue descending, they come to a pile of boulders that had collapsed because of an earthquake just before the Great Lord arrived – remember the earthquake when Jesus died? – and Virgil said that at that moment it was as if the universe had felt the reality of love (XII, 37-45).

Peter is suggesting and Dante is claiming and the Creed is hinting that although Hell is real, nobody has to stay there. C. S. Lewis describes the same thing in his little fantasy The Great Divorce. Do not abandon every hope, who enter there, but listen for the One who speaks to the spirits in prison. This all makes perfect sense to me, but if you want it grounded in a more modern sensibility, let me interpret the images this way: Hell is not so much a place you go to, but something you go through. By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, you don’t have to stay there.

I want to tell you about something beautiful I experienced a couple of weeks ago. Most Monday evenings I’m part of a Zoom meetup of men who are members of WW, formerly “Weight Watchers;” men who are struggling with weight, either trying to lose or trying to keep it off, and struggling with the practical and biological and emotional issues that go with that. A couple of weeks ago we spent most of the meetup talking with Eric, a member of the group and who is about my age, who had written on our social media platform about when he was a Boy Scout and was sexually abused by a leader; Eric was eleven at the time and the leader was about 19 or 20. He did not understand what was happening to him and, since my generation’s parents tended not to talk to their children about sex, he didn’t know how to talk about it.

I won’t go into more detail about Eric’s story; imagine, if you can, the shame he felt for decades. That is one of the horrible legacies of sexual abuse: the victim afterward lives with shame. What I do want to emphasize for you is two things. One is that after he told his story he invited questions. I asked him what were sources of help for him over the years. He said that talking honestly about it helped him. When he started getting serious with a young woman – who later became his wife – he told her about it. And when their children were about five years old, he told them enough to help them understand the difference between good touch and bad touch. Although he went through a very long time of the hell of undeserved shame, he didn’t have to stay there. There was a way out.

The other thing I want to tell you, and which made this conversation such a beautiful experience, is that all the men in the call – some thirty of us, as I recall – stayed with Eric through the whole conversation. Nobody tried to change the subject; nobody got embarrassed that here were a bunch of men talking about an emotional issue and decided to ask when NFL football might return or to tell a joke; nobody chimed in with, “Let me tell you about what happened to me.” Eric told his story; we stayed with Eric; and when that was done, we talked about something else, probably how to deal with the evening munchies or something like that. If your stereotype of a men’s group is that we can’t deal honestly and openly with hard, emotional issues, then you need to pay attention. It was beautiful.

My friend Linde Grace wrote a wonderful memoir of her own journey out of Hell as a result of sexual abuse when she was a toddler.[2] She is the one who helped me learn the difference between “shame” and “guilt.” Guilt is the experience of having done wrong and knowing that you have done wrong; Dante peopled the Inferno with a host of guilty parties, some of them simply his own political enemies. Anyway, you feel guilty because you are guilty. But shame is the experience of being wrong, that you aren’t quite right, and is usually undeserved but the result of some sort of abuse. We offer hope for healing to those who feel shame; we offer forgiveness to those who are guilty. In both cases, nobody has to stay in Hell.

Whether it is said explicitly or not, the reality is that the gates of Hell have been broken down by Jesus Christ; he burst those gates when he emerged from the grave. If you are in Hell, you don’t have to stay there. Christ offers freedom. Do not abandon every hope, who enter there: for the love that shook loose the boulders in Hell will shake loose all our guilt and shame.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Note re: “Eric.” I did not request permission to tell his story, but assumed it since it was publicly posted. I know only his screen name from the WW app and have tried to protect his identity as much as possible.

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995); “Inferno” III, 1-9.

[2] Linde Grace White, Dollbaby: Triumph over Childhood Sexual Abuse (Cedar House, 2005)