He descended to hell…

If I ascend to heaven, you are there O God;

And if I make my bed in hell, still you are with me.

                                                            Psalm 139:8

I can’t help but ponder this verse of scripture as we move into the Easter season.  In the Apostles’ Creed, which we affirmed on Easter Sunday and also affirm each time we celebrate a baptism, there is the line, “[Jesus] descended to the dead.”  In some translations that line is rendered, “He descended to hell.”

In earlier eras of the Church, this line of the Creed was controversial, because nowhere do the Gospel narratives say that, while in the tomb between Good Friday and Easter, Jesus descended to hell.  (One can extrapolate the descent to the dead from Matthew 27:52-53, but it’s a stretch.)  Nevertheless, other places in the New Testament do seem to attest to Jesus’ descent to the dead.  (See Ephesians 4:9-10; 1 Peter 3:18-20; and the psalm mentioned above.) 

Some Christians believe that Christ’s descent to hell means that, ultimately, all people will be reconciled to God.  (After all, the Ephesians passage cited above says that Christ descended so that “he might fill all things.”)  Drawing from Ephesians and elsewhere, the great 3rd century church father Origen believed that even the Devil himself would ultimately turn to God and experience salvation.

I’m not willing to go quite that far.  God grants his children free will, and love does not coerce, and consequently human beings ultimately have the option to reject God.  But, especially in the Easter season, I continually return to Psalm 139: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there, O God; and if I make my bed in hell, still you are with me.”  What does this mean?

Even in our lowest states, when we experience life to be utter hell—often of our own making—God stands beside us like a parent tending a fevered child.  This is true in this life, and it may yet be true in the next life as well. In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, God continually sends his transport (in the fable it is a red, double-decker London bus) to hell, inviting those who are there to board the bus to heaven.  In other words, God descends repeatedly even to the depths of hell in hopes of drawing hell’s inhabitants to himself.  Most refuse, because the irony of hell is that those who are there have deluded themselves into believing that what is good for them is bad and vice versa.  And yet, the bus keeps making its loop, always inviting those mired in hell to enter the embrace of the God whose love knows no end.  I love that image.

As we continue celebrating the death-defeating Resurrection of Jesus this Easter season, remember that the power of hell pales in comparison to the power of grace.  That line in the Apostles Creed is my favorite.  Nothing is stronger than God’s desire that we be with him now and always.  Even when we make our beds in hell, Jesus the Christ will descend there with open arms.