In this season of Lent sermons and classes will focus on the passion of Christ. This is good and right that this be done. Apart from Jesus’ passion in our stead we remain sufferers of our own device. His passion is penitential payment in full for all our transgressions. In the passion of Jesus, God the Father purchased our sins and now He owns them. We need not carry with us the pain and guilt of iniquity. Satan’s defeat is certain and sure, so is the forgiveness of sins He bestows upon us in Word and Sacrament. The passion is a powerful pulpit and easel proclamation. It prepares us to receive the great news of Jesus victory over sin and death evidenced by His bodily resurrection from the dead.
I might also encourage us to spend some time with the little attended but very important event after Jesus burial and before the angel’s announcement of His resurrection. I refer to His descent into hell. That truth is confessed in the Creeds of the Church and spoken with such regularity it is sometimes overlooked as to its immense importance to our salvation. Was Jesus ever in hell? Could the Son of God ever be present in such a place where there is eternal suffering? Wasn’t His suffering on the cross enough, did He need to suffer some more in the fires of damnation? This topic can be puzzling to the student of the scriptures and confessor of the Creeds.
The truth is, yes, Jesus was in hell but not to suffer. Yes, the Son of God was present in such a place as that but not as the damned. I have thought of Jesus descent into hell in the manner of a marathon runner who wins the race. The race was long and arduous, hills to climb, corners to navigate and exhaustion to overcome. At the completion of the race one would think that the runner would sit and catch their breath. Yet the victor traditionally takes the flag of their country in hand and runs around the track a few times showing, without question, that they won the battle of the race.
This analogy might fall dreadfully short but Jesus ran the race all the way to the end of His life. It was in His death that Satan was defeated. Our sins were paid for and the Devil could not accuse the faithful anymore. Forgiven sins exist no more in the sight of God. Jesus’ descent into hell was His victory lap. He proclaimed the defeat of the Evil One and that all who are in Christ are free from the flaming arrows that are doused in the Blood of the Lamb.
The idea that Jesus could be in hell at any time is hard for us to conceive. Yet it is what the Word of God tells us. Jesus physically descended just as He physically ascended. The Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, article IX says “Herein the burial and the descent into hell are differentiated as distinct articles, and we simply believe that after the burial the entire person God and man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed hell’s power, and took from the devil all his might.” What magnificent words from our Lutheran Fathers. It profits us nothing to try and figure out how this could happen. It is ours to trust the Word and take it for what it says as divine revelation and eternal truth. Our peace in Christ depends on it.
God bless you all in this Holy season.