Someone recently asked me a good question. “What does it mean when we say that Jesus descended into hell? How can Jesus who is all goodness enter such a place?
I think that the answer lies in realising that hell means more than the final end of those who totally cut themselves off from any kind of goodness. First of all, we have to remember that without the death and resurrection of Jesus, everyone ends up in hell. The Resurrection is God’s proclamation that heaven is open. Jesus says “I have come that they may have life”, (John 10:10) but that means that Jesus must bring into this new life all those who died before his saving death took place : all the people who tried to be good and to love God, without knowing the fullness of God’s love in Jesus. In a sense, these people are in hell, and so in his death, Jesus enters into their death, and brings them from hell into eternal life.
But hell is also something we can experience while still alive. We actually say after we have been really ill and in great pain, or really troubled by some dark time in our life, “It hurt like hell”. I am sure you know what I mean. Life can be very very hard sometimes. We can face times of great darkness and despair, that can be brought on for all sorts of different reasons. It is then that we need to realise that even if we cannot feel his presence, God is with us. This is why it’s so important to remember that Jesus really suffered and really died. He enters into the darkest places that we can ever imagine, even those places where we hope never to go, into our most horrific nightmares and fears. He has descended into hell.
Jesus then is the great warrior who walks into the worst place we can ever imagine, who walks in as a light shining there that darkness cannot conquer. He lifts his sword of truth and love, and though evil may still appear to be strong, it has actually been defeated, destroyed by his power. For love is stronger than death! And that’s the other meaning of hell, of course. Death is hell, because without the power of God to give us eternal life, we simply die and we are nothing but a fading memory. Jesus enters into death, into hell, so that he can offer us the way from death to eternal life. He says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6) He offers us all a way out of hell.
We see this in our Gospel today. (Luke 24:13-35) The two people on the road to Emmaus are in hell. They had had great hopes for their beloved Jesus, and instead he has ended up dead. They walk on sadly feeling hopeless and lost. They cannot see the way ahead. Life is bitter and dark. Then this man comes to walk beside them, and in their darkness they cannot see who it is. They share their grief, and he listens and then talks to them, showing them another way of looking at what seems the greatest tragedy ever. You and I can be like that sometimes, Jesus walks with us in our darkest moments, and it’s only later that we look back and say “Lord you were there with me, only I didn’t realise it at the time.”
For them, the moment when they realise this is when he takes bread and breaks it, just as he had done at the Last Supper. Their eyes are opened, as ours can be, and then even though they can no longer see him with their physical eyes, they know he is with them. And what do they do? They go out into the darkness, because night has fallen, and filled with joy, they do not notice the dark, and hurry back to their friends to share the news with them. We too will be like them. Mother Teresa of Calcutta actually faced years when she walked in darkness, serving the dying and building her community of love, despite having lost the sense that she once had, that God was with her. She, as St Paul puts it, “walked by faith not by sight”, (2 Cor. 5:7) and we often have to do the same.
However dark it is for us, however much we feel we are in hell, Jesus is there for us, for he has descended into hell, for us. Another word for hell, is Hades, and we heard St Peter use this word in our 1st reading. (Acts 2:22-33) He says “God raised Jesus to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades”, and then he quotes from one of the Psalms, the one that with slightly different words was our Psalm today, “I saw the Lord before me always, for with him at my right hand nothing can shake me.”(Psalm 15) That is our eternal hope, that Jesus is at our right hand, indeed he is holding us by the hand. So although we may not always feel this, we must always try to live it, to live in the knowledge that God is always with us, that love is stronger than death.