Guest Post by Rev. Peter Goodwin Heltzel
“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:1-8
On this Holy Saturday, we remember the death of Jesus. With Jesus’ heart-wrenching death on the cross his disciples entered darkness and his mother Mary experienced overwhelming grief. This year our country grieved the loss of precious and priceless friends and family. We witnessed young black lives lost before their time. We have entered a dark night of the soul. Yet like Jesus’ disciples, we should take heart that even in death, Jesus was an evangelist of love, ever seeking the least and the lost.
St. Peter writes, “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead” (1 Peter 4:6). Ancient Christian tradition believes that when Jesus died, he descended into hell to bring the good news to the captives there, and liberate them to join him in Paradise.
Many evangelical Christians struggle with Jesus’ descent into hell and do not celebrate Holy Saturday. My friend Wheaton theologian David Lauber, author of Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement, and the Christian Life, sees at least two reasons for evangelical resistance to Jesus descent into hell. First, it lacks biblical support; some will even go as far as to say that the “He descended into Hell” should be removed from the Apostles’ Creed, because this is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Second, some treatments of Holy Saturday and the descent into hell lean towards universal salvation, and evangelicals get very nervous when people start talking about Jesus emptying hell – the harrowing of hell – or Jesus experiencing the fullness of hell in our place so that all people are spared of eternal torment in hell.
As I look at Holy Scripture, I see clear evidence of Jesus’ evangelical calling, including preaching to the dead. Early in his earthly ministry Jesus anticipated his preaching to the dead when he said: “Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).
Jesus’ death is a descent, a descent into the very fires of hell, so he could save the just souls who had died before he lived.
Theologian Karl Barth writes, “It is a serious matter to be threatened by hell, sentenced to hell, worthy of hell, and already on the road to hell. On the other hand, we must not minimize the fact that we actually know of only one certain triumph of hell – the handing over of Jesus – and that this triumph of hell took place in order that it would never again be able to triumph over anyone. We must not deny that Jesus gave Himself up into the depths of hell not only with many others but on their behalf, in their place, in the place of all who believe in Him” (Church Dogmatics II/2, p. 496). Jesus’ descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to all people of all times and places. Jesus’ death on the cross and descent into hell unveils his victory over sin, death and the devil himself.
By descending into hell on Holy Saturday, Jesus liberates the saints of old, including Adam and Eve; thus, breaking the curse that has bound sinful humanity since the Fall. Thus Christus Victor is victorious over sin, death, the devil and the curse. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus, not even the gates of hell shall prevail against the love of our Lord. Jesus Christ is an evangelist of love, who has a heart to save every single person in the world, be they black or white, female or male, gay or straight, dead or alive. Since we as evangelicals put a priority on world evangelization, understanding Jesus as an evangelist of love to the living and the dead is the Christological heartbeat of evangelicalism.
On Holy Saturday it may look like death has the last word, but Jesus’ harrowing of hell shows that Love always has the last word. Love in the face of empire, in the face of oppression, even in the face of Death itself. The core message of Easter is that Love conquers all. All comfort can be found in our God, who is Everlasting Love. So let’s love like God. As St. Peter exhorts us: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).