Exploring the Apostles Creed
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Part 6: ‘He descended into hell; the third day he rose again ...’

by Rev. Robert Griffith
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When the New Testament writers want to explain the death and resurrection of Jesus, very often they give us a visual picture of Christ going down, in order to go up again. It's one of the most characteristic patterns in the New Testament: Christ descending and then ascending. We see it in Philippians 2 when Paul talks about Christ who is equal with God emptying Himself of all that and descending; He comes down and makes contact with us in our world. Then He goes as low as you can go, dying, even dying a shameful death. Then God exalts Him and He goes up again. You could think of the gospel of John as another example of this descending in order to ascend. The whole gospel of John follows that sort of visual pattern, that Christ starts out up, goes down, and then ascends again. Well the Apostle’s Creed follows that New Testament pattern when it speaks of Christ, Who is eternally with God; Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord. In today's line from the Apostles Creed, we confess that Jesus descended into hell and on the third day was raised again and ascended into heaven.
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In the ancient Church there was a tradition of religious art called iconography. This was an ancient tradition of trying to convey visually the message of the gospel; trying to express the truth of Scripture in a visual form. So that just by looking at the picture, you could contemplate the message of Scripture and the icon of Christ's resurrection.
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This is the way the resurrection is depicted in this tradition of art. If you've ever seen a western painting of the resurrection, usually you see Christ hovering in the air about four feet above the ground, the grave is empty behind Him and the soldiers are sleeping on the ground in front of Him. The resurrection in western art is portrayed as a miracle that happens to Christ and He's all alone up there in the air. So we are just meant to marvel and say, ‘Wow, look at that! In the Eastern Church however, the resurrection is portrayed quite differently. Here you see Christ standing over two broken doors, and all around in the darkness, you can see broken chains, broken locks and keys. That's a representation of hell, the place of the dead, portrayed as a place down under the ground where the dead go. Christ has just gone down there and He has broken the chains. He has smashed the locks and then He has unhinged the doors of hell. As He rises from death, He stands over the doors, over those broken gates of hell, but He's not alone. This is not like a western painting where He's just in the air and we're meant to worship and adore Him. Do you see the characters on either side? There’s an old man and an old woman. These represent Adam and Eve.
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So here we have Adam and Eve, the head of the whole human family, the representatives of the whole human race. Do you notice how Christ is grabbing them? He hasn't reached out His hand and said “Come take my hand and I will save you.”Isn't that from the Terminator? When Arnie says, “Come with me if you want to live.” No, it's not like that. See how Christ has grabbed their limp wrists? They are actually powerless to help themselves. They are in the place of the dead and Christ seizes them by their lifeless arms and raises them up with Him. Now gathered around on the side you can see the whole company of humanity. You can see figures from the Old Testament and from the New Testament all gathered around. There is a crowd of living witnesses as Christ tramples down the gates of hell and rises into the glory of God.
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The person with the halo on the left is John the Baptist, bearing witness to Jesus. The forerunner, as they call him in the Orthodox Church. The crucial difference between this painting and those western paintings is that Christ's resurrection here is not just something that happens to Him. It's not just an isolated miracle that we're meant to marvel at and say, “Isn't that wonderful, He died and then came to life again.”It's not just a marvel for us to look at. Christ's resurrection is something that we participate in; it happens to Adam and Eve; it happens to the whole human family. Christ goes down into the place of the dead; He takes hold of the captives and as He rises, they rise with Him. As He ascends into God's presence, He takes the dead with Him, not holding them by their hands, but grasping their limp, helpless wrists and raising them up from the place of death.
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Hell in this icon is that black, empty place at the bottom. There's nobody there; the gates are broken; the hinges have come off and the captives are ascending with Christ. The New Testament speaks about hell or the place of the dead, very much like this picture actually - as a place under the ground where the dead have gone. In a number of places the New Testament describes exactly what the icon here displays. It’s showing us that Jesus descends down to where the dead are and then ascends up again. Let me read you some of these Scriptures beginning with Ephesians 4, reading from vers

“But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” (Ephesians 4:7-10)

Do you see the pattern here? He goes down into the bowels of the earth and then He ascends to the highest place. The first letter of Peter, chapter three, speaks of Christ’s resurrection. This is a rather mysterious passage, but here's what it says. Reading from verse 18:

(For Christ) was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey when God waited patiently in the days of Noah . . .” Then it speaks in verse 21 of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. . .  “... who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”  ( 1 Peter 3:18-22 )

We see the same pattern here. He went down into hell, proclaimed peace to the captives and then ascended up to the highest place, through His resurrection, and all things are subject to Him. And we have the same picture in Philippians 2. From verse 9 it says:

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth ... “  ( Philippians 2:9-10 )

There it is again, this place of emptiness where the dead have gone, has become a place where Christ's name is confessed. According to 1 Peter, that place of the dead, the prison where those who die languish, has become a place where Christ's word is proclaimed. In Ephesians, the place of the dead has become one of the locations of Christ's presence. We think of death as emptiness, as separation from God, as being torn apart from the source of life. But the message of the New Testament is that death is not total separation from God. Death is a place where God has made contact. God made contact with us by coming in the flesh. But then God went right to the source of our problem, God descended to the deepest part of our human plight; God made contact with death itself, and filled death with Christ's presence. Those ears of the dead that can no longer hear, heard the joyful news of Jesus Christ. Those prisoners who couldn't raise a finger to help themselves were grasped and held by Christ Himself as He rose. So He descended to the dead, He descended into hell.
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In the early Church, this message of Christ’s descent and resurrection, produced a really strange attitude towards death. If you were an outsider, if you were a good, respectable, pagan, Roman citizen, one of the things that was most offensive to you about these Christians was their horrible affection towards the dead. Did you know that when Christians wanted to have a prayer meeting, one of their favourite places to go and pray was not a Church building, but down into a tomb, standing among the bones of the dead. There you would pray and feel especially close to God - when you were surrounded by the bodies of the dead. Sometimes in a special celebration, you could have a Church service down under the ground in the catacombs, where the dead were laying.

When someone was martyred, when the Roman State put someone to death for their faith, do you know what the Christians would do? They would grab the body of this dead saint, raise them up in the air, you know, like in a football game or something, when the person who scores the soccer goal, the person who scores the winning try in rugby, everyone spontaneously lifts them up onto their shoulders and parades them around. That's exactly what the early Christians did with the bodies of their dead brethren, the faithful dead who have proclaimed Christ's resurrection with their own blood. They would raise them in the air and parade them through the streets of the city. And all the saints would come out to catch a glimpse of this faithful witness. And if you were close enough, you'd reach out to touch that dead body, thinking that the spirit that empowered that person to bear witness might still be on them. There are many stories of miracles as the shadow of a dead martyr would pass by the sick and they were healed. Now, hold on to your breakfast, but there are even stories of Christians kissing the bodies of the dead saints with reverence, with love, with gratitude, for the witness that they have born to Christ.
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Now, one of the Romans who wrote a book criticizing the Christians, this is one of the things he complained about. He said, that attitude towards the dead, towards death itself, is absolutely disgusting. It's a contamination. In ancient Rome, the cemeteries were always outside the city. It wasn't like in a place like Sydney, where there are local cemeteries scattered throughout the suburbs. In Roman law, the cemetery had to be at least two miles away from the borders of the city and you could not build houses any closer to a cemetery. Death was seen as a contamination. There was nothing good about death. You don't want to look upon the dead; you don't want a visual reminder that people have died; you exclude them from the place of the living. So when Christians acted in this way towards the dead the Romans thought it was disgusting. It was as if the border between life and death was obvious to everybody else in the ancient world except the followers of Jesus. It was as if Christians didn't understand that necessary boundary. You just don't touch the bodies of the dead.
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Why did the believers act this way towards the dead? If you've ever travelled to Europe, you may know that many of the great Church cathedrals are built over the bodies of dead saints. The reason St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is called St. Peter's is because it is believed to be located directly over the bones of St. Peter. And again, you can go down into the catacombs beneath the great cathedrals and pray there among the dead.
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What is it that happened to the Christians that gave them this rather macabre affection towards those who have died? Well, it must be that death itself has changed somehow, because of Jesus. Where everybody else sees only horror, darkness and despair, Christians see broken gates, smashed locks and an empty place where no one dwells anymore. All because Christ has gone there and led the captives to freedom. It must mean that death itself is different because of Christ. That must be why Christians think so differently from everybody else about death.
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Now one of the things the world seems worried about with Christianity is this death and resurrection of Jesus. Isn’t this story about Jesus dying and rising again just wishful thinking? Everyone's scared of dying, so isn't this just a way of comforting ourselves because we're frightened of death? Doesn't it produce a rather unrealistic view of death? If we're acting as if we are just going to continue to live, doesn't Christianity somehow deny death? Isn't it a bit of a fantasy – a way of avoiding the hard fact that humans die? Isn’t the message of a risen Christ actually a failure to take death seriously?
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Well, in actual fact I believe it is our pagan society around us that has failed to take death seriously. We have shunned death and completely removed it from our field of view. Don't we live in a society that is gripped by a kind of fevered denial of death? Just think of the way we relate to the aged. Think of the way we treat the elderly. Growing old is a fact of life. If you happen to be born, one of the things that's going to happen to you along life's way is you start to age. It's just a fact of life. But don't we treat aging like it’s a disease? Sometimes I think we may want to go one up on Ancient Rome. If we could remove all the old people and put them two miles outside the city, that would be even better because they are a constant reminder of our mortality and if we are honest, we will admit that we're not very comfortable with old age.
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Our society does not like frailty; our society doesn't quite know what to do with the dying. Think about all the recent discussion about normalizing euthanasia ... they don’t call it that anymore ... they call it ‘assisted dying.’ Now obviously there are all sorts of difficult borderline cases and heart-breaking stories about suffering, but this idea that euthanasia ought to be normalized; that the normal way we think about dying should include this – is it not part of our society’s discomfort with old age and death? Isn’t this also a kind of denial of death? Isn't this also a way of saying, oh, no, death isn't death; it doesn't have any power over you. Death is just one of the many medical realities that we can control. Death is one of the many situations that we can bring under our control. The old fashioned idea that only God knows the day you will leave this earth is gone now. You can choose when to go. Don't we live in a society that can't take death seriously?
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There is a growing tendency in funerals in recent years in the western world to have body-less, funerals. That is, a funeral where the deceased person is not there up the front in a coffin. What is this? Well, it's a memorial for all of us left behind so we can share our grief and tell stories and show a multimedia presentation of the person’s life. We don't even use the word death much anymore. We say that someone has ‘passed away.’ Or, softer still, ‘He is no longer with us.’ We are terrified of even naming death. Aren't we living in a society that's gripped by a denial of death?
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By contrast, Christians take death very seriously, and it’s not just as something that happens to us who are left behind – it’s something that has happened to this person, this body around which we gather. The Christian message treats death with great seriousness, because the Christian message says that God takes death seriously. In Jesus Christ, God has stared death right in the face, and has stared it down. And God could not have redeemed us without making contact with death itself. That's how serious death is to Christians. But the Christian message refuses to treat death with ultimate seriousness. Yes, it's real. It's a fact. But death is not the last word that will be spoken over your life. Death is serious, but it's not as serious as the grace and joy and life of the risen Christ. Our message is one of a crucified and risen Saviour, Who sets us free to look death in the eye.
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We see death as something ultimately that has been tamed by Jesus Christ. That wild beast that seeks to devour us is now completely under the control of Christ. We still die but not as those who are condemned, we die as those who are entering into life, eternal life, everlasting life. In one of the burial services of the Eastern Orthodox Church, part of the body of the dead is wrapped in swaddling cloths like you would wrap a baby. This is a powerful reminder, a beautiful symbol that death for believers is really a kind of birth, an entry into the fullness of life.
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Now here's a mysterious thing. When you were baptized, you were baptized into what? You were baptized into Christ's death. It's as if the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely turned the whole picture upside down. By nature, all of us are on a journey from birth, towards death. But by grace, we are on a journey from death, a sharing in Christ's death, towards birth and into fullness of life - into the joy and unbounded life of the risen Lord, to Whom be glory and praise forever. Amen.

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FEEDBACK: robert@gunnedahbaptist.org.au
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