An Easter Puzzle: “He Descended Into Hell”?

 on March 2, 2023

Is life a comedy or a tragedy? Surely there is more to weep over than to laugh at in our world—but that is not the whole story.

Tragedy begins with a situation where the hero (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example) begins to rise in power and influence, like an arc beginning to ascend. But then, because of an internal flaw, he overreaches himself (Macbeth kills the king in order to become king himself), and the whole structure he has built comes tumbling down, often killing the hero as it does so. That’s tragedy.

Comedy is the opposite. This time, early on in the story, things begin to go wrong. In a Shakespearian comedy, for example, people lose their way, identities are mistaken, and characters fall in love with the “wrong” person. The whole story seems to be moving in an endless downward slide. But by the end, of course, a corner has been turned—true identities are revealed, people are reunited with their true loves, and all’s well that ends well.

Each kind of story describes a different trajectory—tragedy is an arc with its zenith at the top, comedy an arc with its nadir at the bottom. I explained this to my children when they were quite young, and my daughter said brightly, “Oh, you mean like a smiley face and a frowny face.” I’d never thought of it that way, but of course, she was right, as she often is.

So, is life a comedy or a tragedy? That depends on your worldview. As C.S. Lewis says, we can’t figure out what kind of play it is on our own. We can’t tell from looking around whether we are in act one or act four, who the principal actors are, and certainly not the outcome. We may find comic or tragic events in any given scene, but we are not in a position to see the play as a whole. For that, we need the playwright to show us the script. In technical terms, we need revelation—a revealing.

God’s revelation in Jesus Christ shows us a God who “came down from heaven.” Not like a spaceman travelling millions of miles through time and space, but, to paraphrase Lewis again, more like the author of the play writing themselves into the script. The Creator stoops, God descends, God con-descends, to enter our human condition.

As with most stories, things get worse before they get better. The author-in-the-play becomes poor (2 Cor. 8:9), he is “despised and rejected by others” (Isaiah 53:3), he is misunderstood by his students, and then betrayed into the hands of wicked men by one he had counted a friend.

Yet we are still not at the nadir—the arc must go lower yet. He is tried by a kangaroo court, sentenced to death by a callous Roman governor who cares nothing for justice. Then he is nailed naked to a vertical stake, to die in the Middle Eastern midday sun from asphyxiation, dehydration, and blood loss, by the most vicious form of execution ever devised by sinful human beings. As the Creeds tersely put it, “he suffered death and was buried.”

Surely that is the worst that can happen? If the arc is ever to start on an upward movement, you might think this would be the moment. Otherwise, this is unmitigated tragedy.  But no—there is one step lower that he has yet to go—“he descended into hell.”

This phrase was not introduced into the Creed till the fourth century, and it remains perhaps the most confusing clause in our creeds. It needs to be said first that the word “hell” does not mean the place of final punishment, as so commonly understood. It is a translation of the Greek “hades,” thought to be the place for the spirits of the dead, in between their death and the day of resurrection. Hence in most modern versions of the creeds, it says “he descended to the dead.”

What does it mean for Jesus to “descend” there? Our main source for this article and its meaning is an obscure passage in Peter: “He was put to death in the body but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18b-19)

One commentary says there are five ways to understand this passage, but we can make do with just one, the one I think is the most straightforward. Apparently, the word for prison can also be translated “watchtower.” This would suggest that “the spirits” who have been waiting for the resurrection are not so much prisoners as watchers—as one writer puts it, “watching in hope of the salvation promised them, as though they saw it afar off.”

Whatever the details of the doctrine, the point is this, that Christ not only died and was buried, but went even “lower”—spatial metaphors can seem a little foolish but they are the best we’ve got—to the place where spirits wait between death and the final resurrection, to announce to them that death and sin were finally conquered, and that the day of resurrection was at last on the way.

Now finally the upward swing begins—having swooped down from the highest to the lowest, Jesus begins the ascent of resurrection, ascension and glorification, until the arc reaches its highest point—that point at God’s right hand from which it began—and the story is complete.

And what kind of story is this? A comedy, of course. A divine comedy—indeed, the divine comedy—describing an arc which begins higher and stoops lower than any other comedy ever could, a comedy that begins and ends in the heart of God.

My opening question, however, was: is life a comedy or a tragedy? Not, is the career of Jesus Christ a tragedy and comedy? Of course the two cannot be separated. Certainly the human story in this world began tragically—as humankind, in the tradition of every tragic hero, tried to rise beyond what we were made for, overreached our abilities, and were brought low through our fatal flaw.

But as grace dives down into our tragedy, we are caught up with Jesus and rescued from the inevitable end of every other tragedy. Through him, in that downward movement of incarnation, death, burial, and descent to the dead, and then the glorious upward swoop of his resurrection and ascension to the heart of heaven, our story is turned into a comedy. And in the deepest sense of all, “all’s well that ends well.”

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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