Sunday, April 15, 2012


In some circles, the Sunday after Easter is referred to as “Low Sunday.” This always brings a snicker from those who think it applies it to the low attendance in church. Apparently the term came from the fact that the Sunday following the grand and high celebration of Easter Day was bound to be less enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, Easter (the Season, that is) moves on its seven-week journey to Pentecost. During these Great Fifty Days we explore the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ, and its implications for and impacts on each one of us.

During the Easter Vigil, in reaffirming our baptisms, we recited the Apostles’ Creed via a question-and-answer process. One line in it struck me as relevant for Easter reflection, and brought back memories.

When I was but a mere lad learning my way among words and sentences, going to church was an educational event. My dad was often the tutor, pointing out the words in print as they were spoken or sung by the people. It was fun to follow along, exciting to be part of the celebration.

As a succinct statement of the Christian faith, the Apostle’s Creed was a wonderful foundational piece of liturgy for a boy like me. There was a small glitch in it, however. Every time the congregation affirmed their faith using the Creed, they left out a line—I saw it there in the print version in the front of the hymnal: “He descended into hell.” The fugitive line was marked with an asterisk, referring to a simple note stating the obvious: “Some churches omit this.”

At first, from my childish viewpoint, I thought it was omitted because of the swear word it contained. Much later I discovered it was a controversial affirmation, and perhaps misunderstood—worthy at least of some serious consideration.

“The descent of Christ into hell” is controversial probably because there is no broad consensus about what it means. As a theological concept, there are a number of different meanings read into it. As a doctrinal statement, it’s ambiguous.

For some it’s a statement about the hell of death’s agony that Christ experienced—an extension of the redundant statement that he was “crucified, dead, and buried.” It was one more way of saying he was really dead, dead, dead, all the way down dead—to heighten the impossibility of such a dramatic event as his resurrection.

Christ’s descent into hell has also been noted as the sign of his enduring complete separation from God on our behalf, and that his resurrection is an even more dramatic restoration of his and our relationship to God.

For others, “hell” is a translation of the Greek Hades, the place where the dead abide, both the godly and ungodly. The idea is suggested here that Christ descended to bring back those of history who were God’s servants, just as he brought Lazarus back from the dead. Orthodox icons picture Jesus lifting Adam and Eve out of their tombs.

Maybe it meant that he went also to give the ungodly one more chance, proclaiming his Good News to the lost so they might be found again and caught up in the embrace of God.

Christ’s going down to the dead is also understood metaphorically, reminding us that there is nowhere Christ will not go to bring us out of the tombs of death that threaten to box us in, and give us resurrection in our own lives.

Nevertheless, precious few sermons have been preached on this line of the creed (I confess neglecting it), and it hasn’t attracted a lot of academic theological analysis either. The descent of Christ to the dead might be thought a minor theological point, but there it is in the Creed.

Perhaps the statement’s ambiguity is its virtue. It calls us, as does the rest of the Creed, and the Nicene Creed as well, to find application of our affirmed faith to the lives we live. We are summoned to explore another dimension of the mystery of life and death—and resurrection—that we see in Jesus Christ.

Does your church include the phrase, “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed? What do you understand it to mean? Would you prefer to include it in the Creed or omit it? Why?

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