Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Quick and the Dead

    He descended into hell. 
    The third day he rose again from the dead. 
    He ascended into heaven, 
    and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. 
    From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 

We've gotten to a difficult part of the Apostles' Creed: "He descended into hell."  This is the part we get to and we quickly race through to the next part, so we don't have to think about Hell.  We even changed that part in the modern translation to "He descended to the dead."  I want to take this whole part of the creed as one hunk, from the descent into hell to the judging of the quick and the dead, because it is all related.

What does it mean that Jesus descended into hell?  Well, usually we rationalize it by thinking that it is a part of Jesus' suffering: he suffered, was tortured, and he died.  He felt the rejection of the Father: "My God, Why have you forsaken me?"  He took on the sins of the world.  This is an ordeal!  Of course he must have experienced the fires of hell, too.  Why not?  It all fits.

The problem is our narrow view of hell.  Today hell only means the unquenchable fire and torture.  Back then, hell had parts, and everyone knew it.  Dante got it right.  What we think of as hell is actually Gehenna, the destination of the wicked.  This is different from Sheol or Hades, which is a more neutral place of the dead.  Both places were in hell, and when they said Jesus descended to hell, they meant that he descended to the place of the dead.  Our modern translation helps us by changing it to, "he descended to the dead."

Why did he go there?  Let's look at scripture.  First, the passage I usually end sermons with; this time I want to look at it near the beginning of the sermon:

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

There is no place that Jesus' lordship does not permeate: from the top of heaven to the depths of hell. We know that he defeated death, so sometimes we picture death as a person, probably in a black villain costume.  And Jesus comes down there, looking for death, who is, of course, hiding in the deepest place in the universe.   Jesus is probably dressed as Superman, like in Godspell, and he punches death in the nose and knocks him out.

That's silly, of course, but we do think things like that, when we can't grasp the meaning.  Look at this passage from Ephesians 4:

Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:8-10)

Jesus isn't punching out villains.  He's filling all things.  He's also freeing captives.  Look at this difficult passage from first Peter:

in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison (1 Peter 3:19)

We have Jesus doing something much different from punching death in the nose.  He's preaching to the spirits in prison, in the land of the dead.  He's filling all things.  Look at the Apostles' Creed again.  We have a transition from hell to heaven to the right hand of God, from where he will judge the quick and the dead.  What Jesus seems to be doing in this proclaiming and filling all things is the act of QUICKENING.  He is painting the entire space/time continuum with a quickening brush.

When we see in the modern translation, "the living and the dead," we are, once again, getting a narrow view of Christ.  Living and dead implies a physical life and death, as if Jesus was just going to sift through corpses for good Christians, and then he was going to have all the living stand at the foot of the judgment seat.

The word quicken is not in the bible, but we have close words, like awaken, and more closely, "resurrect."  Jesus does a lot of resurrecting in the bible.  He physically raises people from the dead, but we have a metaphor here for quickening.  Jesus is giving people life.  We were all dead in our sins.  We were lost.  Now we are alive again.  We have been found.  This quickening extends from heaven to hell.

The best of example of this is from the parable of the prodigal son.  Twice the father of the wayward son says, "what was once dead is now alive, what was lost has been found."  He's not talking literally, here.  The prodigal son knew where he was and how to get home.  He was not physically dead, but he was spiritually dead.  So were we until Jesus quickened us.  He found us and he resurrected us.  We are all here because he has drawn us to him.  Not everyone is quickened, although Jesus painted from top to bottom, across the space/time continuum with his brush of quickening.

When we read this part of the Apostles' Creed we can see that these words are not the same as what it says below when it says, "I believe in the resurrection of the dead."  There are no redundancies in the Apostles' Creed.  The quick and the dead is something beyond resurrection of the dead.  It is the difference between being lost forever and found in Christ.  It is the difference between being dead in our sins and alive in Christ.  Of course he would go from the bottom to the top of space and from the Genesis to the Revelation of time to make sure none of God's elect were lost and all were quickened.