In the Apostles’ Creed, we often say that Christ descended to the dead, but the formal version in the Catechism leaves off the sugar-coating: Christ descended into Hell. Hell, or Sheol in Hebrew, is a condition, not a physical place, as we know. It is not part of our physical space, nor even of time itself. It is outside these things. It is a state of waiting, in which souls do not know God.
To understand the Resurrection, we must recognize and enter fully into death, yes, and Hell, with Jesus. Paul’s Letter to the Romans says this, but I want to explore what it means to me for a few minutes. Don’t worry, though, I won’t stay there long.
Because Hell is a condition, we may be in Hell long before our heart ceases its beating. Remember, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s Kingdom come. God’s Kingdom of Heaven too is a state, and sometimes we are blessed with a taste of it here on Earth. But its opposite, Hell, can also be seen from here. Hell is the state where we do not know God, and where God seems not to be with us. When Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he entered into the realm of the dead.
I said that Hell was a state of waiting, but waiting for what? I believe that one of the things the dead may be waiting for is hope. After all, Christ came to bring Good News, and that is what the hopeless most need to hear. When we die, there is nothing to hide behind, not even the fig leaves Adam and Eve used to cover themselves. Our sinfulness is fully revealed to others, and worse yet, to ourselves. When we see how broken, how misguided, how imperfect we have made ourselves, we might easily think ourselves unlovable.
The Good News Jesus brings to us, and to the dead, is God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus shows us, in the most concrete of ways, that though we are undeserving of God’s love, God freely gives us his love anyway. Nobody is unlovable for Jesus, or for God. For me to come to understand that love and forgiveness, though, I have had to learn how undeserving of that love I am. As St. Elizabeth Seton said, “The gate of Heaven is very low; only the humble can enter it.”
Each of us, and each of the dead in Hell, has the opportunity to learn God’s love through Jesus. Christ’s death and resurrection is a demonstration of how there is nothing that God cannot forgive, nobody she cannot love, nothing he cannot overcome. Even the dead, who were without God, received God’s messenger, and if they listen to and accept his message, they can gain the hope and the courage they need to awaken and come to God. When we come to God this way, we come as the prodigal son, knowing our unworthiness, but hopeful that God will find some compassion for the low estate into which we have cast ourselves.
And God does not disappoint us, but instead gives us more than we can imagine. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” we pray, and indeed Christ raises us up into God, higher than we can conceive, hugely more than we might dare to hope, and infinitely more than we deserve. Indeed, as St. Augustine wrote, “God loves each of us as though there were only one of us.”
If I have this hope, this faith, in God’s love, how can I not share it? Like Christ’s, our love and our lives are to be signs, however muddied and imperfect, of God’s love and forgiveness. Now, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, which is remarkable enough—but he also washed the feet of his betrayer. Then, from the cross, he asked God to forgive his tormentors and his killers. Meanwhile, I think I’m doing well if I can forgive a bus driver for missing my stop! How can I dare to hope for heaven, if this is the best I can do?
The many readings from the Old Testament tonight should point us in the right direction. However often the chosen people turned their back on God, each time he called out to them, inviting them back into his love and protection. “I did forsake you for a brief moment, but with great love will I take you back. In excess of anger, for a moment I hid my face from you. But with everlasting love I have taken pity on you, says Yahweh, your redeemer.”
Mahatma Gandhi said to a Christian, “If you Christians were more like your Christ, all the world would be Christian.” He was right, but he also missed a larger point: we are Christian in the faith that God will forgive us and love us despite our un-Christliness. Tonight, we celebrate this great mystery of Christianity: through our imperfections, God, in her Son’s Passion, death and resurrection, has found a way to show more clearly than ever his unconquerable love.