I remember a night in college, when I had made some bad choices and fallen into some things I had sworn to myself and to God I’d pull away from, dreaming I went to hell. I remember it distinctly – I was hanging, in agony in a place of cold darkness – poked and prodded, with voices whispering to me. Then a voice like metal being scratched echoed over what seemed like surrounding hillside all around me – “Though many will see through you, you will be undone”.
I woke with a start, shaking, cold, and covered in sweat. Having grown up in a very strict, legalistic Adventist sect that emphasized strict adherance to countless arbitrary religious rules to prove you were on track with God, I had developed a hamster-in-a-treadmill approach to faith I was just learning to get away from – where I felt I was never enough, and worried one day I’d go far, break one two many of the rules, and fall off into the night, lost and forgotten.
I had come to know God’s grace through evangelical Christians at my high school and through the transformation of my home church that had begun to turn to verses like Ephesians 2 which proclaim a deep, extravagant grace not based on what we do, but purely on God’s love in Christ. I was coming to understand that nothing I could do could make God love me any more, and nothing I could do could make God love me any less. Little by little I was coming to let go my fear that I had failed God, failed myself, and failed others – and that this time, I had gone too far. Looking back, though those sins were big to me at the time they would many of them be viewed as so paltry to a lot of people I’ve counseled over the years struggling with guilt from addiction, from crimes they’ve committed, or even struggles over their sexuality. But the guilt was just as real, the shame paralyzing.
Even though the idea of grace was setting me free some from the treadmill, in reality the funny thing about the evangelicalism that was teaching me about grace was how loudly it proclaimed a hell I had never known. In the Adventist sect of my childhood, we learned to get on the treadmill of performance early, but hell wasn’t a big part of the equation. Hell was pictured in the Adventist church of God movement as an end to life – sort of a capital punishment, putting the wrecked life of one who refused healing out of its misery. It might be painful, but it would be quick like the newspaper in the flame quickly curling away in the heat being transformed to ashes.
I had never heard hell described as it was in evangelical circles – described as a place where God beats and abuses those that do not know Him. A place of burning fire, torment, and agony. A place of torture and loss that continues forever. And how preachers I would hear could wax eloquently and descriptively about this fate!
I didn’t think it had gone down deep, but that dream that night showed me how deep in my soul that imagery evoked pure terror in my heart. Even though I knew Christ my fears that I had failed Him that remained from the legalism I learned as a child hung with me, mixing with these images in a night of sheer fright.
Ultimately I came to terms with these feelings. Praying I came to see some of the connections, and find the words of Romans 8 to be speak right to my heart –
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[j]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future,nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Around that time I wrote a poem expressing my struggle over this fear of hell. Now, years later, I grimace at the roughness of its style, but I can still remember the depth of feeling behind its word–
I have a fear few know
which dreams of old did show
that off night’s edge I’l fall
ne’er to his gilded hall
and then I cry.
I have a dark, clear dream
of shadow’s bright unseen:
Wailing horrors, homeless sprites
illumed by darkness’ piercing light,
and then I cry.
I have a terror true
from the voice crying “You!
An enemy shall be,
though many through you see;
and then I cry.
I have a phobic fright
of plunging past he night
to a world without sun
where I become un-done
yet still live
and then I cry.
I have an agony
which looks to be for me
– crucified again, me dying without end–
And then I cry,
“I see the vision vile
yet still shall serve you while
my fate does lie in doubt.
Please drive the darkness out,
And then you cry,
“Let light in darkness shine.
O Son, you yet are mine
though dark night lies within.
I the Dawn did begin
and complete you.”
And then, I cried.
Another fear that gripped me, as it seemed to grip others in the group of evangelical Christian friends I was a part of, was – what about those that did not know? Did not hear? A deep fear was at the heart of many of our efforts to share about our faith. We feared that, if we did not share how our life had been set free by our experience of Jesus, others might also face that horrible fate we had heard so luridly described by preachers.
Reflecting on our experience of hell is, I think, important on Holy Saturday. In the early Christian creeds we read that Jesus is said to have “descended to hell”. I have become convinced that in confronting the fears that the way we talk about hell produce in us, it is important to take time to reflect on how Christ’s taking hell into himself on Holy Saturday by descending into it should transform our thoughts on hell. In my own life, deciding to let Jesus’ experience of hell transform my view of hell rather than my fears of hell transforming Jesus has been liberating.
What seeing hell in the light of Holy Saturday has taught me is well summed up by the title of a book by Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyey. His book, which examines the way in which Christ’s descent to hell on Holy Saturday is understood in the earliest churches, is entitled Christ the Conquerer of Hell. The Christian Holy Saturday message is that whatever hell might be, Christ has both experienced it and conquered it.
This is well pictured by how Petra, in their song “Creed”, paraphrases the apostle’s creed.
They say in this that Christ descended to set the captives free.
The traditional image of Holy Saturday is of this – a harrowing of hell. Christ in death enters fully into the experience of hell to set free those held in its grip. This is rooted in the teaching of 1 Peter 3– “ For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient.”
Although there are a number of alternate explanations of this verse in modern scholarship, the earliest Christians imagined this to be talking about how in the time in which Jesus experienced being fully dead and buried physically, his soul experienced whatever lies beyond for one cut off from God and, in that state, he reached out to those cut off from God’s grace. And many accepted his grace and rose into God’s paradise on Easter morning.
In a way it was him doing as he promised the thief on the cross and remembering him and all who, like him, died without seeming hope in his death.
This image has transformed my view of hell in a number of ways.
First of all, it showed me that it is our desire, not God’s to see people suffer in torment.
This image is of Jesus reaching out even to those who the religious world seems to think have no hope, even after their death, to offer grace. This is not the image of an angry God in whose hands sinners dangle on a thread fearfully over fire, as Jonathan Edwards and many revivalist preacher since have pictured. It is not a God quick to condemn and ready to cut off ties. Rather it is the God of 2 Peter 3 who is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” This is of, as Desmond Tutu pictured in his book Made For Goodness, the God who even in our deaths continues to leave the 99 sheep safe in their fold to search out that one lost sheep who has lost her way.
This removes all fear for me that if I am struggling, seeking to follow God as best I can, I will trip up like I dreamed that night in college and be rejected. No, God’s love is bigger than my failures.
Yet it also removes all fear that if I do not share my faith enough, others will be damned for my shortcomings. God is quick to reach out, to forgive. Even in death Jesus reaches out to the lost and hurting calling them to new life. Perhaps even in their deaths, others who seemed to have never encountered God in their life or at least accepted God may yet experience at that moment the Christ who descended into hell meeting them, offering them forgiveness and grace.
Holy Saturday reminds me that even in death Christ stands ready to meet us. And the Christ we meet in death, yes even the Christ those of us who have fallen off the wagon, failed miserably, and yes even those who fought Christ tooth and nail meet is the same man with nail-pierced hands who never gave up even on Judas. Who never gives up on any us. We do not need to fear for those who die without seeming in our eyes to meet Christ, nor for those who die tragically of overdose or suicide. We need to remember that the God they meet in death is the God who even in his death continued to reach out with nail-pierced hands in love, a God who loves them and wants them to go home even more than we do.
A God who chooses to err on the side of acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and grace rather than condemnation and sin.
To close, here is a beautiful song about the fierceness of God pictured not as a fierceness to condemn, but a fierce and ferocious love. This is the God we meet in Good Friday, in life and in death:
May this Holy Saturday help set you free from your fears.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,