It is possible in a theological statement to get something quite wrong, and yet, at the same time, to say something good and true and helpful. In a way, that may be the only kind of theological statement we can make.
I think that is what happens in Question 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism. (I’ve been blogging on bits of this widely used and well-loved Reformed standard all year in honor of its 450th anniversary. Click here for the whole batch.)
At Question 44 the Catechism is well into a line-by-line exploration of the Apostles’ Creed. It has worked through Jesus birth, passion, and death. Then:
44 Q. Why does the creed add, “He descended to hell”?
Why indeed, ask many Protestants. It is surely the line most likely to prompt worshippers to cross their fingers or look down and remain briefly silent rather than recite it as their own faith. I’ve heard many say it just isn’t biblical.
The simple honest answer would have been
Because for many centuries Christians East and West have believed that, after his burial, Jesus went to the place dead people go and kicked the doors open.
Christians came to this view based on (some would prefer “by misinterpreting”) 1 Peter 3:19-20,
18For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: 19By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
But that’s just a historian’s answer. Heidelberg doesn’t go there. The Catechism neither mentions the interpretation nor cites the text in its notes.
Here’s how Heidelberg deals with the question. Why “descended into hell”?
A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier,
has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.
That’s actually really, really helpful — even though it appears to answer the question
What is the benefit of knowing that Jesus suffered hellish torments, even if as a 16th Century Calvinist I can’t quite buy a literal descent into Hell?
Whatever the question, I love Heidelberg’s answer.
It reminds me of a woman who liked this line of the Creed most of all — much of her life had been spent in an earthly hell, so knowing Christ had been there was deeply comforting.
It tells me that when I face my own private hell, and when you face your own — loss of a job, divorce, addiction, death of a loved one, illness and disability, homelessness, whatever — we can know that Jesus has been there. We can know that the Jesus who is with us in our suffering has suffered too.
And when I’m on the brink of despair or all the way down in its pits, when I’m on the cusp of temptation or suffering the consequences of giving in, this Jesus who has suffered like hell will walk with me to safety — whether here and now or in the end of days.
How do you make sense of the Creed’s claim that Christ descended into hell?
Have you known Christ’s comfort in your own times of suffering?
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