I am asking myself this question again after reading a paper by Wayne Grudem published in 1991 in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society entitled He Did Not Descend into Hell: A plea for following Scripture instead of the Apostles’ Creed. Dr Grudem in fact wishes the offending phrase in the Apostle’s Creed be removed. He argues that it is not warranted either by the history of the creed itself, or by any clear reference in Scripture, examining each claim in some detail.
My interest in his paper was immediate because I have treasured this particular phrase in the Apostles’ Creed. I have believed it gave expression to a fundamental experience I had in the early days of my being a disciple of Christ.
I had experienced God and had begun to pray and read the Bible and listen to the testimonies of others. However, I struggled with a sense of reality toward Christ, and prayed that God might give this to me. One evening I was overcome with a sense of dread and awe, so much so that I collapsed. When I came to I was being wheeled into a hospital and placed within a single bed room. The sense of dread and awe had not gone, but in fact began to increase, to the point that I found myself cowering in the corner. Then a deep darkness appeared to my mind’s eye. It seemed I was looking down into a bottomless pit. I can remember shrieking in terror and horror. Then I heard very clearly in my mind: My Son not only looked into this, He went into it’. From this point the sense of dread and awe lifted and left me.
Since that experience, Christ’s death, and his resurrection, have been the primary focus of my faith. I use the term ‘bottomless pit’, and for me it was as if I looked into hell. It was the sense of complete separation and alienation from any light and life. It was an experienced annihilation. It was truly horrific.
One thing that interests me as I look back at this crucial experience for my faith is that I don’t believe at that time I knew anything about the Apostles’ Creed. This came later.
I have always been reticent in disclosing my experience to date, but this is now changing. I once did talk about it to a group of theological students and the Principal of the College referred to it as a psychotic breakdown. It may well have been, but it transformed my life for good and set me on a path of discipleship and full service in the Church and Community.
In fact I came to believe also from the Bible, rightly or wrongly, that this indeed was Christ’s experience in his death. It seemed to me that in Gethsemane Jesus was seeing something of what his death would entail. He was ‘sorrowful and troubled’, ‘distressed’ and he pleaded for the cup to be taken from him. Luke tells us ‘his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground’. It seemed to me he was ‘looking into the bottomless pit’ and knew he had to go into it, and it was only after he had fully surrendered to what he believed was God’s will for him that it lifted and the next phase of his arrest could continue. To the Gospel account I added the brilliant insights of the prophet in Isaiah 53, recorded hundred of years before Jesus.
Dr Grudem discusses the texts that are traditionally cited in support of the descent into hell, such as Acts 2:27, I Peter 3:18-20, 4:6. But it is Romans 10:6-7 and Paul’s use of the word abyssos or abyss that resonated with me. Dr Grudem makes the point, and I agree, that Paul’s overall point is that Christ is near. We don’t have to scale the heavens or plum the depths. But as he also notes, Paul would probably not have used such ideas if they were not in fact part of the received faith, that the Christ entered the abyss and was drawn up into the heavens. Ephesians 4:8-9 has a similar play between descension and ascension. My sense is that Dr Gruden can come at the abyss but does not want to call it hell.
This brings me to some theological considerations. Dr Gruden, in true Calvinist spirit writes, “While it is true that Christ suffered the outpouring of God’s wrath on the cross…’(p.106). I find it hard to understand that if God’s wrath is such that sinful people can be sent to hell, how come in his mind Christ did not go to hell for them and so save them, if they call upon him. Surely this would be part of the outpouring of God’s wrath. If Christ died in the place of sinners, which I assume Dr Gruden believes, surely to do this means he took the full consequences of their sin, which is not just death, but hell.
For myself, it makes full theological sense that Christ in his death took upon himself all possible human experience including the experience of complete abandonment, separation and alienation from God. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me’ (Ps 22, spoken by Christ on the cross). Is not such a state hell?
For myself, Christ descended to the bottom of the bottomless pit, and elsewhere I argue that this pit is within the psyche of each one of us. From there he was raised as St Paul says and is the one ‘who through the Spirit of holiness was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:4).
Unlike Calvin and Dr Grudem I don’t believe God poured out his wrath on the dying Christ. Quite to the contrary, I believe God in his total love enabled Christ, by the agency of the same Spirit that resurrected him, to descend into the abyss for our sake, and so establish a new creation in the Spirit in which the whole of this creation and human history is caught up forever into the Godhead. In Christ God was gathering everything unto Himself.
Good Friday is the remembrance of this triumph of the Holy Spirit in redeeming all creation and history in the being of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. It is the proclamation of God’s unfathomable love. This is a God and a love to be truly feared.