Friday, March 21, 2008

easter: the harrowing of hell

The Harrowing of Hell
[manuscript for easter fusion teaching]

Several years ago, after the pope had been heckled during his visit to Holland, a Belgian newspaper ran an editorial which commented as follows: the difference between the Dutch and the Belgians can be seen in their separate reactions to the pope. In Holland, people do not keep the commandments but they still want to be saints, so they demand that the commandments be changed. In Belgium we do not keep the commandments either, but we know that we are not saints and so we admit it and ask for redemption.

Our culture struggles with honesty, with admitting weakness.

Much within us and around us invites us to rationalize,
to make excuses,
to demand that standards be changed
or re-integrated
because we cannot live up to them.

But the failure to admit our weaknesses and acknowledge our sins is infinitely more damaging than weakness and sin in-and-of-themselves.

We should remember this at Easter. It is the time for atonement.

Easter is a time for reconciliation, a time where we remember Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.

At-one-ment with God.

Jesus comes to us, and loves us, even though we are weak and sinful.

Jesus proved this in many ways – through his death, through his teaching, through his example, etc – but the one I’d like to focus on today is his descent into Hell.

Jesus proved his love for us by descending into hell – a theological bit of pizzazz rarely talked about, though ultimately very significant.

Here it is in a nutshell:

We believe that Jesus Jesus died and descended into the depths of Hades (Ephesians 4.8-10). He did not suffer, for his suffering was completed on the cross (John 19.30). He preached to those tormented because of their sin (1 Peter 3.18, 20; 4.4), spreading the fragrance of himself even into Hell (2 Corinthians 2.14-16). He departed (Acts 2.27, 31), bearing the keys of Hades (Revelation 1.18) and destroying Death itself (Hebrews 2.14).

The doctrine of the descent into hell is first and foremost a doctrine about love,
God’s love for us,
and the power of that love to go to all lengths,
to descend to all depths
and to go through virtually every barrier
in order to redeem a wounded,
and unfree humanity.

Do you know how much love it must take for someone to go willingly into Hell?

There is a story I’ve heard, about a man who died and was sent to hell. His brother came to the gates of hell to beg for his release, claiming that there had been a mistake. His priest came and begged for his release, claiming that man had at least as many virtues as vices.

They were both refused.

Then the man’s mother claim to the gates of hell, aching for her son. She said: let me in.

By dying as he did, Christ demonstrated that he loves us in such a way that he can descend into our private hells. His love is so empathetic and compassionate that it can penetrate all barriers (constructed either out of hurt or fear or whatever else) and enter right into our despair and hopelessness.

We see this idea expressed powerfully in John 20. Twice John presents the disciples as huddled behind closed doors, locked in because of fear. Twice Jesus comes through the locked doors and stands in the midst of that frightened and depressed group, breathing peace into them.

The image of Christ going through locked doors ought to give us a certain hope. It means that God can help us even when we cannot help ourselves. God can empower us even when we are too weak and despairing, even to open the door and to let him in.

There is a famous picture that shows Jesus standing outside of a door, the door to the human heart, and there is no doorknob for him to open. The purpose of the picture is to remind us that we must open the door and let him into our hearts. The picture is not without its merits, but ultimately what it says is untrue.

Christ does not need a doorknob.

Christ can enter through closed doors, solid walls, or through the barriers of fear and suspicion.

The picture expresses a truth about human love. In the human arena, these are the dynamics of love; unless a heart opens from the inside, human love can only knock and it must remain outside.

But that is not the case with God’s love, as John 20 depicts. God’s love can descend into hell. Unlike our love, it is not helplessly knocking at the door of fear, depression, hurt and sickness. It does not require that a person, especially a wounded and dying person, first find the strength to make the initial move to open his self or herself to health.

There is no hell,
no private hell of wound,
or even bitterness,
that God’s love cannot and will not descend into.
Once there, it will breathe out the peace of the Holy Spirit.

So, what does this mean for you and I?

Well – to break it into digestible bits – it means that:

1. God loves us unconditionally and there is nothing we can do, sin included, that even for one second can change that. We can go to hell, and even there, God does not stop loving us.

2. It means that we live under the law of mercy, not of justice. We cannot undo, or even atone for, our sin. It must be forgiven, washed clean through Christ’s sacrificial death.

3. How do we receive that forgiveness? By opening the door? Perhaps we would be better served by another metaphor. Perhaps a better way to conceptualize it would be to have us stop fighting God.
a. Imagine that the love of God is a great wet blanket placed upon you, saturated with the sweetness of love and mercy. Instead of throwing that blanket off, accept it and live within it – let it warm you, shield you, and comfort you.

b. Imagine that God appears to you and picks you up like a child, cradling you. Stop fighting Him. Allow yourself to be held close to His heart.

If you resonate with these images – these desires – then pray with me:

God –

I have many regrets. I have done many wrong things. I have hurt others, myself, you, and the world – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in greater ones.

Please forgive me for all of this.

I do not want to keep fighting you. I want your love and forgiveness. I want to feel it. I want to know I have it.

I willingly accept whatever it takes to know you and be known by you.

I am yours.


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