Why Jesus Went To Hell and Why God Doesn’t Fit Inside Boxes

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:22-31

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

 

Our reading from 1 Peter includes this line, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous and the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he also 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, during the building of the ark….” Cue the record scratch. What is going on here? Jesus apparently visited “the spirits in prison” between his death and resurrection? This is definitely one of the less discussed teachings about Jesus at least in the circles I am familiar with. We talk about it, I guess, but it seems to go by pretty quickly. In the Creed we recite every week we say, “he descended to the dead/hell” but I usually think of that as a more poetic way of simply saying, “Jesus really died.” There is a long tradition in the church in which this story is called the “Harrowing of Hell.” For me, the big question is, why does it matter that Jesus went to the land of dead and/or Hell?

I have heard all kinds of interpretations of this passage over the years. One is that this descent to Hell was a way of God covering all of God’s bases. The thinking goes that Jesus offers forgiveness and salvation to all who believe in him, but what about the people who were alive before Jesus was even born? What happens to people like Moses and Miriam, Abraham and Sarah, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, King David, and so many other heroes of the Bible- to say nothing of the folks who faithfully followed the God of Israel before we shifted from B.C. to A.D.? The Harrowing of Hell provides a logical solution, Jesus goes to the land of the dead where all these unlucky souls reside, tells his story about being God’s Son, being resurrected, etc., and gives them the opportunity to believe in him and thereby save their skin. To me, it just seems like God put God’s self in a pickle and had to come up with a contingency plan to save face. God seems to say, “Whoops! I forgot about people before my Son came along. Better send Jesus to straighten this out.” It seems to box God in too much.

Some say that the “spirits in prison” to whom Jesus preached are the people from the time of Noah who were so bad that God decided to wipe out the earth and start over by sending the great Flood. Some say the “spirits in prison” are just the angels who had rebelled against God, had children with human women, and fathered the Nephilim or giants. That last one is a little weird and unfamiliar because it doesn’t come directly from the Bible, but from a popular book at the time called 1 Enoch that didn’t make it into our Bible.

The details, however, are not so important. It doesn’t make a huge difference if Jesus was preaching to Moses, Miriam, the rebellious people of Noah’s time, fallen angels, or George Washington. The point, I think, is that Jesus saved people and he went to any length to save them. The grace, love, and mercy of Jesus is not constrained to our expectations or imagination. Spirits in prison may sound like a done deal to us. We may think that these people are a lost cause. They had their chance. God’s justice must prevail. Or if we are more mercy and forgiveness inclined we might say, “Well one day those people will be freed. Maybe when Jesus comes again.”

And God destroys our expectations. No one can escape the abundant mercy, forgiveness, and salvation of God. God doesn’t tarry in granting that forgiveness and love either. God’s mercy reaches all people now. Even in the land of the dead or Hell itself, Christ brings the gift of new life.

God destroys our limiting expectations. I had certain expectations about my call to serve here at Saint Bart. I had received a lot of advice from more experienced pastors that when coming into a new call, you should try not to shake things up too much. I was told that for at least the first year of a new call, you should not do anything new. You and the congregation ought to coast for a while doing whatever the church did the year before. This practice gives you and the congregation a less stressful environment in which you can get to know each other. That was honestly my plan when I got to Saint Bart, but then God decided to destroy those expectations. Some changes in the church led us to pursue the Redevelopment program and with that came new educational opportunities and a focused commitment in discerning God’s call and rerooting in our community. In this dismantling of expectations, God has done some pretty incredible things. We have built relationships with members of our community getting to know their hopes and fears through offering prayer and service; we have done cooperative ministry in sharing worship services with congregations from other denominations and our own denomination, we have partnered with Saint Mark for confirmation, and we have established a formal ministry partnership with Abiding Presence. We have been experimenting with new elements of worship, we have started new ministries like the Resource Fair, the upcoming Youth Job Fair, prayer groups, and more. God has been at work in powerful ways and it wouldn’t have happened if God was content to settle for my expectations (and maybe yours too?) of starting out nice, quiet, and slow for our work together.

God seems to be in the business of exceeding our expectations of who can receive love and grace, how they receive it, and when they receive it.

Who would have expected God to choose and rescue the people of Israel from slavery even though they are such a tiny, insignificant people.

Who would have expected God, through the prophet Elisha, to heal Naaman, a powerful general of the enemy’s armies!

Who would have expected God to call Paul, a former violent persecutor of the early church, to become one the church’s strongest and influential champions?

Who would have expected Jesus to welcome, love, and heal all the wrong kind of people? Who would have expected Jesus to have intimate conversations with women, alone despite the social taboo? Who would have expected Jesus to eat with tax collectors- those spineless dogs who sell out their own people to the occupiers? Who would have expected Jesus to touch and heal lepers and the sick whom many believed were being punished by God for their sins? Who would have expected God’s Son to suffer and die for the sake of offering salvation to the world and who offers forgiveness even to those who crucified him?

Every time we construct a box with which we try to place God, God just looks at us, laughs, and says, “Do you really think I’m going to fit in that?” Throughout the long history of God’s people we have tried to tell God who deserves mercy and forgiveness, what price needs to be paid to receive that mercy and forgiveness, and when folks are eligible to receive that mercy and forgiveness. Here God, you and your love can get comfortable in this nice little box I made for you. And God just laughs and laughs and loves and loves.

What are your expectations that need to be broken? And what are the expectations that God is calling you to break for others? Perhaps it falls into partisan politics- if you are a Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Green Party/etc. you are ignorant/selfish/stupid/weak/etc. Perhaps God needs to break our expectations that “that neighborhood” is “bad.” Perhaps God needs to break our expectations that the poor are lazy, stupid, or just unlucky and that’s just the way it goes. Perhaps God needs to break our expectations that racial injustice, patriarchy, and other destructive systemic divisions are too big and entrenched to ever be overcome. Perhaps God needs to break our expectations that our lives and our hurts we are dealing with right now won’t ever get better. God doesn’t fit into any box, especially boxes that we construct out of hate, fear, and ignorance.

The Harrowing of Hell teaches us that God in Christ is not bound to our limited expectations of mercy and love. Jesus will go anywhere and do anything to be with us and to give us abundant life- he will even travel to the depths of hell itself to give us a Good News word of hope and unconditional love. God’s mercy fits in no box and thank God for that!

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