Jesus is sentenced to death by the Roman overlords. He is led away to a hill called Golgotha, “the place of a skull.” It is aptly named, for here history’s most famous and most-remembered death will occur. The attempt to silence one more independent voice in the human centuries has begun.
The death of Jesus is ultimately a solitary matter for him. Most of his disciples forsake him. Only the “Beloved Disciple” and his mother remain according to the Johannine tradition. The solitary nature of his death contrasts sharply with the public nature of his execution.
We may die in a public hospital with a constant stream of visitors, but the “hour of our death” is a singular matter between us and our Creator. The life energies which brought us into being are returning to their source. There is diminishment in this, and ejection from the world. All that has been built up over the years is sliding away like loose sand into a hole. There are marks in the sand to indicate where we have walked, but the marks will be erased by wind and time.
We may leave a monument, marks of achievement, love residual in still-beating hearts, but for us it is finished. All the centuries after us will be unknown to us. It is of critical importance to grasp that this also applies to Jesus in his humanity. If we do not grasp this, then we will never appreciate the deep personal grief that sheds tears into the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane and touches his anguish at the Cross
Even for Jesus, the choice between life in God and continuing life on earth is not immediately obvious. Jesus is a “man of the earth”, though we tend to see him through Paul’s glimpses of the “heavenly man”. The Apostle Paul is torn between heaven and earth in his pilgrimage, but Jesus suffers no such ambivalence: he is a man of the earth. We may see him as the representative of humanity, but he represents himself and his own earth-clinging sentiments. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” appears in Genesis as a divine description of the condition of humanity. This does not mean that the “dust” is willing to be assimilated! Yet it is this clinging to earth that attracts us to the death of Jesus as well as his invincible trust in Abba, “Father” through it all.
Jesus enters something barbaric, ugly and grotesquely twisted at the Cross. That is, the deepest and darkest pits of the soul. He enters them and he overcomes them because of his transparently authentic humanity and because he apparently knows more than we know about God and human destiny.
The ensuing conflict within himself is starkly obvious on the Cross even at our distance from humanity’s most haunting death. That “transparently authentic humanity” endures the Cross and is bequeathed to nurture the goodness of humanity. The Cross is about sin and its consequences, but it is also about preserving the gifts of goodness and love in the world.“Taking up” our “cross” to follow Christ means receiving his gracious and generous gifts for the journey, as well as enduring suffering and hardship in his name.
The reference to “he descended to the dead” rather than “hell” in this translation of the Apostle’s Creed has nothing to do with removing an ‘offensive’ term. “Sheol” or “Hades” was a place where all the dead went, whether good or bad. Abraham’s Bosom may well have been in mind when Jesus spoke of the thief being with him in “Paradise”. That is, it could have been an upper storey of Sheol and therefore an ‘elevation’ towards or in God. “Hades” is the Greek term and “Sheol” is the Hebrew term for the place of the departed.
The references in I Peter 3:19 and 4:6 to the “spirits in prison” refer to a Sheol-type place. This is the only direct reference to the descent or journey of Jesus after his death and it supports the use of “descended to the dead”. This may be the reason for the change.
The use of Gehenna, apparently referring to the Valley of Hinnom on the outskirts of Jerusalem, may have given colour to the Christian notions of “hell”, though that connection is now disputed. We know that there is such an experience and ‘place’ in our life and that it is real. But how to describe it is more difficult, it seems. “Hell” is easier to place within human experience than in the steps of the death-resurrection- exaltation of the Lord. We may wish to point to the reality of hell, but the present translation in the Apostle’s Creed is closer to Scripture in the use of “descended to the dead.”
He suffered, he died, he was buried, he descended to the place of the dead, but he did not stay there. Nothing, not even death, could contain the creative power that would raise him from the dead. Being raised into an “indestructible life” vindicates the words and vision of the prophet from Nazareth. It is also at the centre of our belief in the eternal identity of our souls with Christ. Alleluia!