Christ, Too, Experienced Death
What, as Christians, can we say to those who face death, either their own or that of their loved ones? We certainly can give them the hope of Christ’s resurrection, if they or their loved one has trusted Christ in repentance and faith. We can also assure them that they do not grieve without hope because they, if they and their loved ones are Christ-followers, will one day see that loved one again.
But here is what faces us in the meantime: the twin realizations that—unless we too pass on soon—we will not see them face to face for a long time and that this is because our loved ones no longer live bodily on this earth. Yes, they and we will be raised with Christ one day; yes, we have hope in the resurrection; and yes, they are with Christ. But on this last note, perhaps there is some further hope we can offer.
Perhaps there is something more immediate than Christ’s second coming and believers’ resurrection to eternal life that we can preach to those grieving but not without hope. The hope that is more immediate, and one that is descriptive of our departed loved ones’ eternal state right now, not just some distant day, is that Christ, too, has experienced death.
He did not just experience dying only to rise again moments later, but he actually remained dead in the grave. He did not simply have his breath expire and then immediately rise to glory, but his body was buried and his soul departed to the place of the dead. And because he is God in the flesh, he defeated the place of the dead and the grave by descending into them and then rising again on the third day. In the Christian tradition, this hope is known as the doctrine of Christ’s descensus—his descent to the dead.
Descent and Resurrection
In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created.
But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders…
In this descent and reascent everyone will recognise a familiar pattern: a thing written all over the world. It is the pattern of all vegetable life. It must belittle itself into something hard, small and death-like, it must fall into the ground: thence the new life reascends. It is the pattern of all animal generation too. There is descent from the full and perfect organisms into the spermatozoon and ovum, and in the dark womb a life at first inferior in kind to that of the species which is being reproduced: then the slow ascent to the perfect embryo, to the living, conscious baby, and finally to the adult. So it is also in our moral and emotional life.
Do Not Fear Death
Do not fear death; the Savior’s death has brought freedom.
He endured death and thus destroyed it.
He descended into Hell and destroyed it.
Even as Hell tasted his flesh he threw it into chaos.
All this was foretold by Isaiah, who said, “Hell below is moved to meet you at your coming.” [Isaiah 14:9]
Hell was in chaos because it was annihilated.
It was in chaos because it was cheated.
It was in chaos because it was done away with.
It was in chaos because it was defeated.
It was in chaos because it was led away captive.
Hell swallowed humanity and discovered divinity.
It swallowed earth and experienced heaven.
It swallowed the visible and was defeated by the invisible.
O death, where is your sting?
O grave, where is your victory?
John Chrysostom, Easter Sermon
The Keys of Death are In the Savior’s Hands
Christ descended into Hades so that you and I would not have to. Christ descended to Hades so that we might ascend to heaven. Christ entered the realm of death, the realm of the strong enemy, and came away with his keys. The keys of Death and Hades are now in our Savior’s hands. And God his Father has exalted him to his right hand, and given him another key, the key of David, the key to the heavenly Jerusalem.
He opens and no one will shut, he shuts and no one will open (Rev. 3.7). And praise to him, as the hymn says, “For he hath op’ed the heavenly door, and man is blessed forever more.” All praise and honor and glory to the Lamb who has conquered! “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth” (Rev. 14.13). And blessed are we here and now, who even now have this hope, and a fellowship with our Savior which is stronger than death! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Charles E. Hill, “‘He Descended into Hell,’” RFP 1.2 (2016): 10.
Our Fascination with Descents
Descents are everywhere. From Hercules and Orpheus venturing into Hades, to Harry Potter following the pipes down into the Chamber of Secrets, to the Sheriff and Joyce Byers frantically searching for Will in the Upside Down (in the Netflix series Stranger Things), we want our heroes to descend into the underworld, defeat the enemy, and rescue their loved ones.
We want Maui to enter the Realm of Monsters and defeat Tamatoa in the Disney film Moana. We love seeing Doctor Strange enter the Dark Dimension, experience death ad infinitum, and thereby trick and defeat Mordo at the end of the film named after him. Our hearts swell while reading
The Silver Chair as Jill and Eustace rescue Prince Rilian from Underland, and in The Lord of the Rings as Gandalf descends into the depths of Moria, gives up his own life to defeat the Balrog, and then rises again to save Middle-Earth. There is something fascinating about—a shared yearning for—a hero who can enter the underworld, defeat our enemies, and bring the dead back to life.
This descent motif, so popular in ancient and modern mythology, is also found in the historic events of the Bible, climaxing in Christ’s descent to the dead between his death and resurrection.
The Place of the Dead
When the New Testament speaks about “the dead,” it has a specific background, one that affirms “the [place of the] dead” as a location containing the disembodied souls of both the righteous and unrighteous (albeit in separate compartments). This lends credence to the idea that when the NT writers and later the creeds speak about Christ’s resurrection “from the dead,” they mean not only from the state of being dead but from the place of the dead and from among the dead ones (disembodied souls).
Something Strange is Happening
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory. At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him, “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
Epiphanius of Cyprus, Homily, “The Lord Descends into Hades”, Taken from Synaxarion of the Lenten Triondion and Pentecostarion, Fr. David and Mother Gabriela, eds., HDM Press, 1999 pp. 160-161.
You Can’t Pray to Jesus
Today is Holy Saturday, the day between the cross and the resurrection of Christ. It’s a day of reflection and waiting. It’s a time to consider further the reality of the cross so as to prepare for the celebration of the resurrection.
I will never forget a humorous Holy Saturday conversation that happened between my children when they were young. My son, Nathan, who was six years old, offered to pray before dinner. He began, “Dear Jesus . . . .” Immediately, he was interrupted by my daughter, Kara, who was four at the time. “You can’t pray to Jesus,” she said in a determined voice. “Why not?” Nathan asked unhappily. “Because he’s dead!” proclaimed Kara. “You can’t pray to him until tomorrow!”
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