I Believe in the Descent into Hell
This Advent and Lent we've been looking at a life driven by what the Church confesses to believe in the Apostles Creed as opposed to the popular Purpose Driven Life which is everywhere you look. The wanted gunman in Atlanta was read to out of that book. Dan Rather upon retiring said, "One reason one gets into journalism is to live a life of purpose." I can't relate to that. I can relate to another story Rather tells about his college days in Huntsville, Texas. He was the overnight DJ on a radio station. In the wee hours sermons were played. Rather figured that he could make it down to the donut shop before the sermon record was through. But after flirting with the girl who waited on him, he jumped back into his car, flipped on the radio and heard to his horror the record stuck saying, "hell, hell, hell." I can relate to that because hell has been a repeated theme in my life. Not going there has been the overarching purpose of my life and that's why the Church confessing to believe Jesus descended into hell drives my life.
Of course, there are some who think they have no fear of hell. The Indians said of Texas Ranger Captain Jack that while their chiefs were not afraid to go to hell together, he wasn't afraid to go alone. The motto of the 138th infantry regiment is, "Even hell cannot stop us!" I knew plenty of that type in the Army. They tried to scorn and laugh at hell. But hell has a way of finding you. Its sulphur smell seeps into your mind; it's roaring flames lick at your heart. Its torments plague your dreams.
Once hell has got a hold of you, no matter what you do you can't be free of it. Your life is stuck like that Rather record playing, "hell, hell, hell." Being sure of your purpose in life won't help. Being very purposeful in your life won't help. Not even fulfilling your purpose will help. Hell, hell, hell looms in front of you, and 10,000 times 10,000 practical, life centered, upbeat sermons won't help either. They'll tell you how to be this or how to do that. They'll point you to your high, holy purpose in life, but they won't talk about the one thing that consumes your life: hell, hell, hell. Hell is the thousand pound elephant in the room that nobody talks about. Well, let's talk about it.
God did not take on flesh and blood for the purpose of giving you purpose. We had plenty of purpose already in the 10 Commandments. Love God with all your heart; love your neighbor as yourself. Don't be lustful, prideful, greedy, gossipy, or worrisome. That enough purpose for you? If not, God has a dozen more things for you to do and failing to do even one means you go to hell. So if Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried to give me more purpose, I'll pass. Giving me another purpose that I will surely fail at doing only gives me more hell.
Jesus came for the purpose of dealing with that thousand pound elephant called hell sitting on your chest. God had pity on us poor sinners who could only earn hell by our very best attempts at fulfilling His purposes for us as expressed in the 10 Commandments. He sent His Son, Jesus, into flesh and blood to do what we can't do. Every Commandment which we only have to hear to know we've broken it, Jesus kept. All the do's and don'ts God demands of humans, Jesus did in our place.
But keeping the Commandments isn't the only reason God became Man. There was hell to pay for the good we fail to do and the evil we do. The eternal God is offended, insulted, outraged by lies you call white, truths you call half, lusts you call innocent, and pride you're proud of. You've slapped the all-loving God in the face, you've spit in it; you've bit His hand as He fed you not only food but every other good thing you have in life. Offending, insulting, outraging God surely deserves cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, and daily troubles in this life. But the wrath of the eternal God is not satisfied by a lifetime of your suffering. He's not even satisfied with an eternity of it. That's why hell is forever, and that's why hell is such a big elephant in the small room of this world.
There was hell to pay for your many sins of thought, word, and deed and Jesus paid it. Only the sufferings of God could satisfy the wrath of God. Only the holy blood of God could wash away sins against the Holy God. Jesus suffered an eternity of hell on the cross shedding His blood drop by drop to cover every last single sin you and everyone else ever committed or will commit.
That's what Jesus was doing on the cross on Good Friday. He was dying as you ought to die. He was suffering as you ought to suffer in hell. Satan saw Jesus, the One who had been promised to come and crush His head, suffering helplessly like a worm and not even a Man much less God. And like a monster bass lurking in the weeds, Satan goes for the bait, and swallows Jesus in death. Death really swallowed Jesus. Satan and all the demons in hell thought they had won. So on Good Friday night all hell is partying like they had won a national championship. The One who was going to crush them had died defeated by the forces of hell.
Not so fast. Satan can swallow humanity all right, but he can't swallow divinity. As sure as a bass can swallow the worm but must spit the metal hook out, so Satan had to spit out God. The only reason God died on Good Friday was to pay for those sins that haunt you, shame you, and make you fear hell. God allowed Himself to suffer and die in Christ to pay for your sins. Once that was done, Death couldn't hold Him. So hell is partying on, but then there's a knock on the door. And like those Raid commercials, the demons look through the peep hole and shriek, "Jesus!" Then they run. The demons, the devils, Satan himself runs, because Jesus is alive.
Satan's claim on your soul was based on the Law and Sin. He had God's Word, God's promise, that he could take you to hell and torment you forever if you sinned just once. But then God came in flesh and blood and fulfilled all the demands of the Law. If Jesus completed, fulfilled, and did all that the Law commands, what can Satan claim you still need to do? And if all your sins were loaded on Jesus and paid for by Jesus suffering hell on the cross, where's a sin that Satan can demand you go to hell for? Go ahead; look around. Dig through your past. Lift up the rocks where you've pushed those real shameful things. Open up the closet where you've tried to hide your guilty skeletons. If Jesus already went to hell on the cross to suffer and pay for your past, your shame, your guilt, then God can't send you.
Jesus took on your flesh and blood not for the purpose of giving you more purpose, but for the purpose of putting your fear of hell under your feet. He descended in hell, to announce His victory, to triumph over the demons as Colossians 2 says, and you went with Him. Where the God Jesus goes, the Man Jesus goes. Once Jesus took on flesh and blood in the Virgin Mary, wherever divinity goes humanity goes. When Death had to spit out God on Easter, Man went with Him. Divinity had always triumphed over the demons, but now in Jesus humanity does too. See the human foot of Jesus planted firmly on Satan's neck and know that foot is your foot. And as the Roman poet Virgil said, "Happy is the man who has placed beneath his feet ...the roar of greedy hell."
In Christ Jesus the roaring flames of greedy hell are put out. Hell is for sinners you know. What sins do those baptized into Christ Jesus have? If people are baptized "for the forgiveness of sins," as Scripture says, then their sins are put away, put aside. "As many of you who are baptized, you have been clothed in Christ," says Paul in Galatians. So, baptized Christian, if you are clothed in Christ, what does God see when He looks at you? Not you, but Jesus. Well, can God the Father send God the Son to hell? Then He can't and won't send you.
In Christ Jesus greedy hell's roaring flames are put out. Hell is for the dead you know. Those absolved, forgiven by Christ don't die. Don't believe me? When David confesses to the horrible sins of adultery and then murder, the prophet Nathan says, "The Lord has put your sin away; you shall not die." In Jesus' place and by His command I forgave all your sins just minutes ago. I was Nathan, you were David. Having forgiveness of all your sins, even when death does come for you, you close your eyes one second here only to open them the next second there. You don't die.
In Christ Jesus the flames of greedy hell are beneath your feet. Whom Jesus sends to hell are those who say they've fulfilled God's purposes for them. Read Matthew 25 yourself. Those who claimed they didn't fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. are the ones who go to hell. Those who say they never fulfilled God's purpose, go to heaven. Why? Because what saves is being connected to Jesus, but you can't be connected to Jesus by something you do whether it be a decision you make, a claim you stake, or a purpose you fulfill. By Communion, Jesus bodies and bloods us to Himself. He connects us to Himself as firmly as a body is to its Head. We go where Jesus goes. Moreover, what does Colossians 1:27 say our hope of glory is? "Christ in you." Christ can't be anymore in you then in Communion where you eat His Body and drink His Blood.
The Boston opera was performing "Faust." In the scene where the devil escorts Faust to hell, a trap door was to lower them out of sight. It got stuck halfway down. Seeing that a drunk man in the audience hollered: "Thank God, I'm safe at last! Hell is full!" No, my dear friends, hell is not full. But you can shout to the mountaintops that you are safe at last. Why? Because hell is defeated today. Jesus declared that when He descended into hell and has directed me to declare it to you, so you can shout it to the mountaintops. Hell, hell, hell is vanquished, defeated, and finished in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Resurrection of Our Lord (3-27-05); Colossians 2:15