And He descended into hell

And He descended into hell

+ + + In Nomine Jesu + + +

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is good for us to be here this Holy Saturday to keep vigil for the dawn of the day of our Lord’s resurrection, and it is my privilege to proclaim God’s Word to you-all here at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on this occasion.

On this Holy Saturday, during this Easter Vigil, before we celebrate too much the Resurrection of our Lord, it is fitting that we pause to ponder our Lord’s descent into hell. In the Apostolic Creed we confessed “He descended into hell”, as we likewise do in the Athanasian Creed. The Augsburg Confession of 1530, which in many ways began the Lutheran Church, also confesses the descent. Aspects of the descent were debated among Lutherans a generation later, and the descent is variously contested even today. That we pause to ponder our Lord’s descent into hell is truly fitting.

One of the movies that debuted this year at the Sundance Film Festival was a documentary titled “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” The film was written and directed by Morgan Spurlock, who wrote and directed the 2004 documentary titled “Super Size Me”. The title of Spurlock’s latest movie is a play on the name of a computer game and PBS TV-series titled “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” Some of you may also think of the title of the NBC Today Show’s ratings-period series “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” To be sure, guessing what exotic location a TV anchor has gone off to and pursuing a fictional character in order to learn geography are not as serious of a matter as tracking down an Isalmic terrorist. Still more serious for us as we ponder our Lord’s descent into hell is thinking both about where Jesus Christ was on the first Holy Saturday and about what He was doing.

Do we know where Jesus was and what He was doing? As we heard last night in the Good Friday service’s reading of St. John’s Gospel account, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus took Jesus’s body and laid it in a garden tomb. The other Gospel writers likewise tell of His burial and of the women’s preparing spices. St. Matthew’s account adds details of the chief priests’ and Pharisees’ arranging for His tomb to be sealed and a guard placed so the disciples could not steal the body and say Jesus had risen. But, we also heard a few moments ago from St. Peter’s epistle how after the Christ was “put to death in the flesh” He was also “made alive in the spirit, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”. So, is Jesus Christ lying in the tomb, or is He proclaiming in prison? Or, is He maybe doing both?

I mentioned that Lutherans a generation after the Reformation debated aspects of our Lord’s descent. The dispute resulted in Article IX of the Formula of Concord, which is one of the confessional writings of the Lutheran Church contained in The Book of Concord, and with which all pastors vow to norm their teaching of the Word and administering of the Sacraments. The Formula’s ninth article refers authoritatively to the so-called “Torgau Sermon” of Dr. Martin Luther, an English translation of which one of my professors and I had published several years ago. In the sermon, Dr. Luther makes no reference to the 1 Peter passage we heard tonight. (In another place, Dr. Luther called the 1 Peter passage too difficult and said he could not understand it, but Luther still interpreted the passage as referring to Jesus’s states of humiliation and exaltation.) On the basis of the sermon and its authoritative citation by the Formula of Concord, we believe, teach, and confess that, after His burial, while still lying in the grave for three days, Jesus Christ, God and man, with body and soul, descended to hell, in a triumphant manner. He did not do so to give the unbelievers there a second chance at salvation, but He did so rather to declare there the victory He won over all the powers of hell by experiencing the torments of hell on the cross.

How could Christ lie in the tomb and at the same time descend into hell? People in Dr. Luther’s day certainly wondered that, and today you and I are at least tempted to wonder the same thing. Can our fallen human reason and senses imagine such a dual presence of our Lord? Fallen reason and senses may lead us to doubt that such a descent ever took place. What else do we wonder about and maybe reject as a result of our reason’s objecting or senses’ contradicting? Do we maybe wonder too much about the things God does not reveal to us? Do we maybe wonder whether God really controls the world and works all things together for good? Do we maybe reject the ways God chooses and promises to work in the world? Do we maybe even deep down reject God’s very love for us in Jesus Christ and God’s call for us to believe in Him?

Whether we sin in those or other ways, we all do certainly sin. And, as we pause to ponder our Lord’s descent into hell, the Holy Spirit calls us-all to repent from all our sin. We are to turn from our sin in sorrow and to believe God forgives our sin for the sake of Jesus Christ. When we so turn and believe, God truly forgives our sin—our sins of doubting and rejecting what we should not doubt and reject, and whatever else our sin might be.

Although we ought not wonder how Christ could lie in the tomb and at the same time descend into hell, we can easily picture a strong hero coming with an army and weapons to an enemy’s fortress, destroying the fortress, binding the enemy, and taking all that belongs to the enemy. And, all three synoptic Gospel accounts report Jesus’s teaching of His descent into hell in such terms of His being the One Who enters a strong-man’s house, ties him up, and carries off his possessions. So, the age-honored ancient hymns and Osterspiele (Easter plays) depicted and described Christ using a standard to break and destroy hell’s gates and to beat and drive out the devil and his minions, one through a window and another through a hole. We do not think that Christ had such a literal standard or that hell has literal gates, but we know His descent was more than a figure of speech; He did literally descend into hell, and He literally descended into hell for you and for me, to rescue from hell all who believe.

You and I were not yet born then, of course, and the Old Testament believers were already in heaven (not in some limbus patrum, or “limbo of the fathers” as some have believed). But, on account of sin, you and I, already then, by nature belonged to the devil, and the Old Testament believers were only previously saved by grace through faith in what Jesus Christ would do on the cross. God is essentially outside of time and sees everything as one great big “now”. We may not rationally understand it, but we believe it. Christ’s triumphant descent was part of His rescuing all believers. Only He could and has destroyed the devil and taken all power from him. Christ’s descent revealed His triumph to the netherworld, even as the empty tomb the next day revealed it to this world.

Our Lord promised His disciples (and us) that the gates of hell do not prevail against His Church. Significantly, Jesus made that statement in connection both with the true confession about Jesus Christ and with the Office of the Keys that makes it. God gave that Office so that we might obtain faith in Jesus Christ and also make that true confession. The context of this Easter Vigil service, with its candles and carefully selected readings, directs our attention to Holy Baptism, which delivers us from death and the devil, as we at the Baptismal font are both buried and raised with Christ. Our flesh, with its reason and senses, continues to experience the assaults of the devil, but our spirit, with redeemed reason and faith-directed senses, knows that all hell, death, and misery are destroyed so that they can no longer harm us. Neither hell nor devil can take captive or harm you, me, or anyone else who believes in Jesus. So that we continue to be forgiven and strengthened in this life, our Lord gives to us, in the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar, the same body and blood that was crucified, descended, and rose again for us. We do not understand, but we easily imagine our Lord’s remaining in heaven and still being present in bread and wine, just as He remained in the tomb and yet descended into hell.

Christ’s descent alone would not have helped us if He had not also returned and brought us with Him. With the resurrection of our Lord, the first-born of the dead, we have already received the best part; our bodily resurrection is minor by comparison. And, we know that the same way a person is usually born into the world head-first and the body follows, so where the head, Christ, is, His body, the Church, must follow. Tonight we are waiting and watching for resurrection morning, even as in this life we are waiting and watching for the Last Day. The descent into hell reminds us of the comfort that is ours: we have been rescued, we are redeemed, and we will ultimately be victorious. We know where Christ was the first Holy Saturday, we know where He is now, and we know where He—and we!—will be for eternity! Alleluia!


The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

+ + + Soli Deo Gloria + + +