(The following is the main body of a sermon for Holy Saturday I wrote during my first year of divinity school, about Jesus meeting Judas in hell. (The full, lamentably long, text can be found here). May it bless your Great Sabbath.)
...I have noticed that most churches have changed the pertinent line of the Creed to “he descended to the dead.” Talking about Hell has never been an easy or a very popular topic. Unless we are using the old fire and brimstone routine to scare salvation into some wayward sinners, we generally do not like to think of a place of eternal torment and hopelessness, let alone talk about it with our modern, liberal congregations. Nor do we feel entirely comfortable with or able to reconcile the idea that a God of Love would effectively condone and preside over the eternal torture of people He Himself created and knit together in their mother’s wombs. CS Lewis himself wrote, “there is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture, and especially of our Lord’s own words.”
Many of us feel the same way. If we had it our way, everyone regardless of what they had done in life would be given a second chance at heaven. None of us wants to see anyone, not even our worst enemies, endure the kind of torments dreamed up both in the Bible and by the theologians and the poets. And yet, the hard truth is that we cannot with integrity read the Scriptures nor affirm their authority without accepting that, no matter how we choose to imagine it, Hell is an inescapable reality; for some, tragically so. Hell represents for us the state in which souls are eternally separated from God, and, at the very least, and perhaps, at the utmost worst, experience the unbearable pain of that separation for the rest of time.
And yet, into the darkest, most desolate and abandoned place we can imagine, yet even here Christ Jesus travels during his sojourn in the flesh. Into the place of man’s self-condemnation, into the place of utmost separation, down into the furthest depths of damnation, destruction, despair and death beyond death, Christ dares to leave His footprints in the molten sands. That which he did not undergo, he could not redeem. Even in Hell, Hades, and Gehenna, Jesus walks.
St. Peter, who knew well the hell of self-condemnation, testifies to Jesus’ infernal itinerary in his first letter. He shares with us that after his death, Jesus braved even Hell to make “a proclamation to those spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.” He goes on to further clarify that “this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” For the Jews, Sheol was a place where the souls of the dead awaited the final judgment day; those who were great sinners waited in unbearable agony, while the great patriarchs and prophets rested “in the Bosom of Abraham.” The early Christians would have understood that Jesus descended in order to share the Gospel with all those people who had not lived to hear it personally from His lips.
Here, once again, the text is incredibly silent on a most important and mysterious point. Once again, I ask the Spirit’s guidance upon my imagination as we walk with the Savior into the realms below.
I imagine Jesus walking through the gates of Hell. As He passes through, He looks up and notices black words etched in yet blacker stone: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. Unimpressed, and with a furrowed brow, He continues onward. The expanse before him is bathed in a pale green light. Shadowy people walk about as if lost, gazing around with panicked, exhausted eyes. A sob grips him, and a wince, as he hears a voice cry out from somewhere beyond the light in the shadows. His heart is rent with a paroxysm of pity. My lost sheep, He thinks. I am coming.
He walks along the river called Styx until He comes upon a hill. On that hill were seated Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Samuel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel; Rahab, Rebekah and Ruth; John the Baptist, Jonah, and Jeremiah; and with them, all the hosts of Israel’s past. And while their brows are beaded with the sweat of waiting, their eyes are nevertheless closed, their heads bowed, their lips moving silently in prayer. Ah, yes, thinks Jesus. It is the Sabbath. Even here, without the sun, my people know to quit their agony and their grief and, in spite of hopelessness, remember and keep holy the Seventh Day.
Jesus kneels down besides them and prays. When the time comes when on earth the Torah would be read, he stands up and greets them with a joyful blessing, “grace and peace be unto you all.” The shades are taken aback, and look at one another, puzzled. Who is this one who speaks as if He had authority, they wonder. But He continues, reciting from memory the same verses with which He began His ministry in the world above: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Their eyes glow, for the first time in many many years, with Hope, as He smiles knowingly and says, “today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Release to the captives. Let the oppressed go free!”
Several hours later, the souls of Israel are assembled at Hell’s gates, prepared to march under the banner of the Lamb. As they are preparing to depart, Jesus sees a figure, crouched by the side of the river. “My brothers and sisters, hold for one more moment,” he says, and makes his way over to sit beside the soul sitting there holding his knees to his chest.
“Hello Judas,” he speaks, softly, yet full of longing and joy. “Oh, I wondered when you would show up,” comes the tart reply. Judas does not turn his head, but continues to stare coldly into the darkness beyond the river. “It is good to see you again, my friend,” tries Jesus again, placing his hand on Judas’ shoulder. “Yeah, well the only good you can do would be to get lost. Haven’t you tormented me enough already?” answers Judas. “Judas, my son, we are leaving now. I know you heard me speaking earlier. You are welcome to come with us; I desire so badly for you to come with us. Please, turn, and come.”
Judas stares ahead; he recalls the texture of the cold silver coins he held in his hands, and the warmth of Jesus cheek as he kissed him in the garden. He remembers the final, sweet release of the rope closing about his neck; his heart recoils at the agony he is trying so hard to hide; he will not show weakness now. He steels himself, and keeps his silence.
Jesus sighs, and for a moment, a tear trembles on the corner of his eye. But he lets out a deep breath, and rises. “You know where to find us, Judas, when you are ready.” He turns, and walks towards the great army of saints. As they march forth from the gates, Jesus looks back over his shoulder at the gates of Hell; the first two words of the ominous greeting have been crossed out. He nods in approval at his divine defacement, and leads Israel forth on her new Exodus under the new banner: “HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.”
I do not know how Judas’ story ends. For it is not my story to tell, nor my ending to know. But I can hope. And I dearly hope that at some point, if not that day, then a little while later, when he had finished grieving, that he rose from that river side, turned, and accepted the invitation given to him.
I can hope for those in Hell. And I can hope in the midst of Hell. In descending into the abyss on that first Holy Saturday, I know that Jesus felt the same way that CS Lewis did about Hell, and that He had the power and the authority to do something about it. The text tells us that Jesus “preached” to those in Hell; Jesus writes a blank check in the amount of the Gospel and offers it to all captives who long for freedom.
But just as on earth, in Hell, the Gospel is preached. It is an invitation, and this means that it must be accepted. For those not persuaded by the love that moves the maker of the universe to enter into the very depths of the most damnable place in existence, I am not sure there is any other invitation they ever would accept...
...But the Good News of Holy Saturday is that the invitation is finally universally extended. The Gospel is preached, even in and especially to the very darkest places of creation. Before even the miracle of the Resurrection, Christ reaches out to those who are closest to annihilation. The fires of hell are put a matchstick compared with the burning passion of our God-in-Love, who desires that everyone know how much they are loved and desired. The power of St. Paul’s words to the Romans rings out: “for while we were yet helpless, yet at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…in this God demonstrates His love for us.”
Jesus asks us to take the time for our Sabbath rest on this most Holy of Sabbaths, to stop and to remember those whose grief cannot be consoled, those whose pain is profound, those whose isolation and separation and self-condemnation we ourselves would rather pass over during this Passover season. In the grief of the living, as well as in the torment of the dead, we see a world still aching, still longing, still burning, without hope and without direction under Hell’s banner, ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. Hell’s Banner proclaims itself from Pilate’s palace, from Judas’ tree, from Peter’s pitifulness, from Magdalene’s house of ill repute. Hell cries out, “Arbeit macht frei” in the signs of Auschwitz, Hell rears its head in the proclamation “Whites only” in the places of segregation and prejudice, Hell shouts with fury in the gunshots that claim lives by the shooter’s own hand, Hell leaps with ecstasy in the back alleys of Durham and Denver and Damascus and Delhi where the homeless are left to rot, ignored, abandoned, alone, condemned. Hell whispers its seductive lullaby to death row inmates, to AIDS patients, to burned out businessmen and exhausted stay-at-home housewives and suburban nihilists, to disillusioned pastors in stagnant congregations and to child soldiers in Sudan and grown up soldiers in Iraq. Hell writes with broad strokes across the creation and below: Abandon all hope. Be condemned.
Yet Christ takes on even our own self-condemnation. Christ is sovereign even over Hell, over Death and the grave. “He descended into Hell” is not an empty phrase in a rote creedal statement. It is the essence of the Gospel.
To all who struggle under oppression from the Hell of corrupt governments, he proclaims, “Hope.” To all who labor under unfulfilling jobs, who toil under self-hatred, who reject grace again and again and choose routs of self-destruction and self-indulgence, he proclaims, “Hope.” To prostitutes, to drug dealers, to gangsters, to CEOs and professional athletes and rap artists and country singers and to generals, junkies, professors and pastors, he proclaims this Gospel, “Hope.” And even to those in the darkest depths of Hell, who have condemned themselves by their choices in life and their refusal in death, to those who linger in darkness, in desolation and in despair, to them, even in spite of their sin, yes, them especially, Jesus walks with them, he bids them, “HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.” Hope, because even here, I am with you, and will not forsake you.
“He descended into Hell” is nothing less than the proclamation that even in the very fires of Hell, the Gospel is proclaimed and the invitation extended. Hell is no longer the last stop, the final destination, the last word – but merely a stop on Christ’s journey of redemption, for all those who long for freedom, who will turn, and accept the Gospel of the invitation of Grace. It is Holy Saturday that enables us to truly say: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”