Part 7 of TGCA’s series on The Apostle’s Creed
The creed says that Jesus was crucified. This alone should be sufficient to establish that he died. Including the details that he was “crucified, died and buried” and that he “descended into hell” seems surplus to requirements. If I read in a newspaper that such-and-such a criminal was executed by lethal injection, I can imply the rest. I am not left wondering, “what happened next?”
From the creation of the world to the birth of Jesus at break-neck speed. And then, at his death, we suddenly go into slow motion.
The creed, by labouring the point, creates a puzzle. Why? Why this emphasis?
It certainly causes us to slow down. The biblical Gospels are like this. They do the cinematic equivalent of switching from a montage approach to the life of Jesus to a real-time account of his suffering and death. The creed too, having raced over his life, lingers at his death. He suffered under Pontius Pilate. And he was crucified. And he died as a result of that crucifixion. And then his dead body was buried. And then he descended into hell. From the creation of the world to the birth of Jesus at break-neck speed. And then, at his death, we suddenly go into slow motion.
The Death and Burial of Jesus
Some have argued that this emphasis on the death and burial of Jesus convey that he really did die. Perhaps, though it seems a little excessive, both historically and linguistically. Historically, there are few if any recorded cases of people surviving a crucifixion. The idea that Jesus might have naturally survived his was a question unlikely to enter anyone’s head. And linguistically, the word “crucified”—like our word “electrocuted”—implied success, not a mere attempt.
Jesus did not conduct his mission in a hazchem suit. He completely identified with our humanity in order to heal all of our humanity.
There probably is an historical concern lurking here. In the normal course of events, those who were crucified were left to rot on their crosses, or thrown into a common grave. The refusal of a proper burial was a feature, not a bug, of the crucifixion process. It was a final denial of your dignity, your humanity. But in the case of Jesus, he was—as the Gospels are at pains to point out—buried. This is not what a first-century person would expect to have happened to the crucified. It is for that reason worth making a note of.
But behind this historical concern is a theological point. Jesus lived a life which started in the way ours start (with a birth) and ended in the way ours end (with a burial). From a womb to a tomb, and everything in between, he lived our life. It began as ours begin, and ended as ours ended. He took the human-train all the way to its final destination, the grave.
Karl Barth, reflecting on this part of the creed, says:
It stands there so unobtrusively and simply superfluously. But it is not there for nothing. Some day we shall be buried. Some day a company of men will process out to a churchyard and lower a coffin and everyone will go home; but one will not come back, and that will be me.
Burial is the natural end of a human life, the one-way trip we will all make.
It is also God’s judgement on sinful humanity. It is the wages of our sin. Jesus, in his burial, died the death of the creature, and the death of sinners. By slowing down at the point of Christ’s death, the creed invites us to linger over the mystery of the incarnation. Fully, completely, actually, without having to cross your fingers or squint or look askew, Jesus, the Son of God, died. Gregory of Nazianzus, the great 4th century Cappadocian theologian, said of Jesus “That which he did not assume, he couldn’t not heal.” Jesus did not conduct his mission in a hazchem suit. He completely identified with our humanity in order to heal all of our humanity. Humans go to their graves as finite creatures and guilty sinners. Jesus went there too.
The Descent into Hell
Jesus was crucified, died, and buried. He also descended into hell. This is important. However, as Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, that word might not mean what you think it means.
In the New Testament there is a word (Gehenna) which most closely aligns with what we think of as “hell”. This is the place of final judgement, the place of separation from God. But the word in the creed is the word that refers to Sheol, or Hades, which is, more broadly, the place dead people go.
In Isaiah the inhabitants of Hades stir at the latest arrival, like bears stirring from winter hibernation, or like slugs discovered under a sheet of iron.
Heaven, earth, and under the earth. That is the three-decker universe the Bible often speaks of. Hades is the place under the earth. It is the proper home of the dead.
What is Hades like? It is not a good place, such as heaven. Nor it is a purely retributive place, such as hell. It’s a kind of listless, shady, ambiguous, and dark abode. In Isaiah the inhabitants of Hades stir at the latest arrival, like bears stirring from winter hibernation, or like slugs discovered under a sheet of iron. They rise, ghost-like, to greet the now deceased king of Babylon with the words “You have become weak, as we are. You have become like us.” (Isaiah 14:10) The Psalmist, arguing the case that God should save his life, includes among his arguments that no one proclaims God’s name in Hades. “In Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5). If you allow me to go to Hades, says the psalmist to God, it will be a bad outcome for both of us.
This is what the creed is saying. Jesus died, and as a result of being dead, he went to the place of the dead, to Hades. But he was not abandoned. Death could not hold him, and God raised him from among the dead. He returned from a destination famous for only issuing one-way tickets.
The Harrowing of “Hell”
What, if anything, did he do while he was there? Some would say nothing. But I think we can cautiously affirm three things.
First, Jesus brought the blessings of his death to those who had died in faith before him. Ever wondered what happened to those who knew God and would have trusted in Jesus’ death, but were unfortunate enough to be born on the wrong side of the BC-AD line? The New Testament’s answer seems to be that Jesus went to the departed saints, heard their cry from the pit, and rescued them from their bondage to death (Ephesians 4:8-10).
Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it seems, Jesus went to the place of the dead to let his enemies know about the regime change.
Second, Jesus proclaimed his victory over the evil powers. As Peter puts it, he “he made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago…” (1 Peter 3:19-20). Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it seems, Jesus went to the place of the dead to let his enemies know about the regime change. He proclaimed to them that every knee shall bow, “in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10) at the name of Jesus the Lord. Jesus now hold the keys to death and Hades (Revelation 1:17-18). The gates of Hades will not prevail over the church (Matt 16:8), because those gates have been smashed down by Jesus.
Third, Jesus has made death a safe and blessed place for all who now die in him. In the Old Testament, death is never good. It is something always to be avoided, even by those who know God. But by the time of the New Testament, a person like Paul can declare that to die is “better by far” (Philippians 1:23). The book of Revelation says “blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on” (Revelation 14:13). Why the change? Because he has conquered the place of the dead. Those who die in the Lord from now will not experience the ghoulish life of the underworld, but the conscious blessing of God, while they await the resurrection of the body.
On the strength of these convictions about what Jesus did between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Christian attitudes to the dead radically changed. Think of the tradition in England and elsewhere of churches being surrounded by the gravestones of former parishioners. Going to church surrounded by the blessed dead. Or think of the early Christians whom, as Ben Myers recounts:
…would assemble for prayer in tombs. They would worship Christ among the bones of the dead. Believers would raise the bodies of martyrs in the air and parade them through the streets like trophies. At funerals they would gaze lovingly on the dead and sing psalms of praise over their bodies. Such behavior shocked their pagan neighbors. According to Roman law, the dead had to be buried miles away from the city so that the living would not be contaminated. But Christians placed the dead right at the center of their public gatherings.
In the interest of public health concerns, I have no desire to revive these particular traditions. But they come from this deep conviction that Jesus had descended to the dead, and in doing so, made death a safe place for all who die in him.
Do you need to be afraid of death? Afraid of what happens between now and the resurrection? Not if you trust in Jesus. He has made death a safe place for you. Death, the last enemy, will be conquered in the end. But even now it has been tamed.
 Barth, Dogmatics in Outline., 117.
 Acts 2:24.
 Myers, The Apostles’ Creed.