Describe, assess and critique the recent revival in Christian reflection on Holy Saturday.
Holy Saturday the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is the day when as the Apostle's Creed declares “he descended into Hell”. Very recently, discussion on Holy Saturday has made a rather large revival in the form of Alyssa Pitstick's book Light in Darkness and her allegations of heresy of Hans Urs von Balthasar. The issue of Roman Catholic heresy when it comes to Balthasar's progressive theories is not my concern. My attempt here is to explore this mysterious part of the Apostles creed its relevance within Balthasar's imagery, its tangled historical origins and its misuse which can lead into a foolish hope for the departed.
The traditional understandings of the descent are defined by scratchings of scripture (canonical and non canonical) pieced together to understand an event that has no witnesses. Christ's Death and Resurrection are seen for all the world but the actions and events mentioned of the descent within the scriptures and creeds have no first hand witnesses at all. All that exists on the subject has its origins in Christ's preaching to the dead in 1Peter 3:18-20 and the action packed harrowing of Hell from the Gospel of Nicodemus which are victorious in their descent. Yet even these traditional views are often are considered suspect.
According to J.N.D Kelly the descent “involves exegetical difficulties of no mean order” (Kelly:378). In his work Early Christian Creeds Kelly delves through the history of the descent explaining that teaching on the descent was “commonplace of Christian teaching from the earliest times.” (Kelly :379). Apart from showing the number of references to the descent within times past he also explores why the descent was inserted in the first place. Kelly tries to find a meaning for the inclusion of the descent into the creeds, one being that it is possible to have been included to defend against Docetic heresy.
“It is just possible that the details of the Lord's experiences were elaborated so as to underline the reality of His death...... that Christ's descent to the underworld proved His participation in the fullness of human experience.” (Kelly: 383).
Kelly also goes on to express that despite this being possible that the descent could also be taken as a further expression of Christ's death and burial. This view has been taken by Randall E. Otto who sees the descent as a “mysterious article” that to include “seems very unwise”. He concludes for the descent not to be used, that it has no “clear substantiation in Scripture” and that “there is no truly sensible or widely acceptable meaning for the clause”(Otto:150). In taking Kelly's opinion of the descent being simply restating of Christ's death and burial it is no wonder why Otto comes to his conclusion. The descent cannot just be a second affirmation that Christ was dead and buried. Otherwise the line makes no sense at all. Can you imagine reading a translation of the Apostles Creed which took Kelly's conclusion?
“Crucified under Pontius Pilate, Died and was Buried, no really! He was dead and buried.” (Apostles Creed, addition by Phillip Hall in bold)
However, the possibility of the descent underlining the two natures of Christ his Humanity and Divinity, that in Christ's humanity and “participation in the fullness of Human experience” Christ goes to the inferos – the place of the dead. That makes more sense than a reiteration that Christ was dead and buried.
Some however find it hard to accept any place of the dead. How you see the human trajectory - the journey every person takes from birth, life and death and whether that trajectory includes any destination or place like Hades, Sheol, or Gehenna - will influence your opinion of the descent. Balthasar comments on the belief of a place of the dead or an after life is not merely a cultural myth but that we are...
“...defending ourselves against a stronger conviction which tells us that death is not a partial event. It is a happening that affects the whole person, though not necessarily to the point of obliterating the human subject altogether.”(von Balthasar:148)
If we believe in a destination after death and that this is part of the human trajectory then Christ “in the fullness of his humanity” had to go there as well. In the end all of this is merely speculation that despite persistent thought on Christ's descent, it is just that Christ's. I believe that Barth says it better than I can.
“Is there any one of us who has been condemned to a sleepless night by the knowledge : I shall one day be buried and then be “pure past”? This conception in the form in which we have fashioned it and tricked it out with our own ideas is poles away from what the Creed says in crucifixus, mortus, descendit ad inferos...We cannot know of it...But Jesus Christ did know of it.” (Barth 1962:89)
In Balthasar's image of Christ's “Going to the Dead” he takes from both scripture and from the dramatic interpretations. His central theme is one of solidarity.
“In the same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is solidarity with the dead.” (von Balthasar:148-149)
It is the solidarity of Christ there suffering in Hell with the dead that is writ large in Balthasar's picture of Christ's “Going to the Dead”. To Balthasar there is no three tiered universe with heaven above, earth in the middle and hell below, there is no victorious storming of Hell with Satan cowering under the invasion of divine light penetrating the dark domain. Christ is humanly dead, the traditional actions given to the descent are that of a living person even the action of descending is abandoned. Passively Christ goes to the place of the dead as a part of his death on the cross where He is really dead. There is no contact with God and with other human beings, Christ is silent and mute, dead with the dead. There is preaching but this taken as being “the outworking in the world beyond [the place of the dead] of what was accomplished in the temporality of history.” (von Balthasar:150)
The effects of the cross “the work of redemption” are “deployed and exercised in the realm of the dead”(von Balthasar:150). This is preaching can be taken as Christ's witness being dead with the dead.
The placing of Christ in Hell with the dead whether that is either victorious preaching or victorious opening the gates (doors) of hell can lead into radical thinking about the soteriological aspects of such a descent. Balthasar's theory of going to the dead is not seen as another work of salvation beyond the cross but as a natural progression of Christ's completion and redemption of the human trajectory. It is the extra-soteriological views that have been a part of the negative view of the descent and reasons for its exclusion. The full realisation of such thinking ends up in the salvation of all either through Christ's descent and resurrection or by His storming of Hell to take all back with him. It is suggested by Kelly that such universalist thinking was the true origin for the descent being added into the creed.
“….the time when the Descent was beginning to appear in creeds, the ancient notion of Christ's mission to the patriarchs [the preaching to Adam Eve et all] was fading more and more into the background, and the doctrine was coming to be interpreted as symbolising His triumph over Satan and death, and, consequently, the salvation of mankind as a whole.” (Kelly: 383)
When taken to extremes such a view of salvation leads to the place that Jurgen Moltmann finds where “Since his [Christ's] resurrection from his hellish death on the cross there is no longer such thing as 'being damned for all eternity'.” (Moltmann:254). Moltmann continues in glorious tones of freedom for all through the salvation of Christ who gives pardon so “all will be liberated and saved”. This is the extreme view of universalism one where even “Satan, the Devil and fallen angels” are redeemed as “God's Judgement puts everything to rights”(Moltmann:255).
Yet there is a more subtle slip. The vision of Christ in Hell can lead to a foolish hope where in Hell Christ can preach the gospel to those already dead. The false image of Christ's solidarity with the dead “supports the belief that the dead have not failed in faith and that, the power of the Holy Spirit, God is one with the dead” may lead one to see the descent as a “narrative knitting humanity together....including those who while alive seemed to have no chances left.” (Connell:130). Such images attract the heart and the desire to see another chance for those dearly departed.
“The descent into hell means that no place is cut off from the love of God. Even hell belongs to Christ...It means that nobody is God-forsaken, not even the person who chooses to reject God's love. It means that the last word is not suffering or death or desolation or lostness: the last word, the ever-present and undying word, is love.” (Hunt:58)
When you read Connell and Hunt in their description of the results of the descent emotions lead you to wish for this and hold onto such a foolish hope. Unlike universalism which is loud in its promise of all things being redeemed, false hope attracts using compassion and love proclaiming love conquers all boundaries and no one is ever truly lost. The unfortunate reality of this foolish hope is that it is a false view of the solidarity of Christ with the dead. It is not the dead in Hell who have solidarity with Christ but those who are dead IN Christ who have solidarity with the dead Christ.
“We must not deny that Jesus gave himself up into the depths of hell not only with many others but on their behalf, in their place, in the place of all who believe in Him... In faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God ”as lost.” (Barth 2001: 496)
There exists the image of an “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns [which] puzzles the will.” (Shakespere: 159) a place of the dead that is the end of the human trajectory. If to be fully human is to go to the place of the dead, then for Christ not to would be inexcusable. Christ going to the dead as correction against heresy supporting His dual natures becomes less of a possibility when you look at it this way. What has not been assumed cannot be redeemed, if there is a place of the dead that all humans go the believers position has been taken by Christ. Solidarity with Him is in his substitution for us in death and the subsequent going to the dead, a solidarity enacted out in baptism. Christ does this not for those with Christ in the place of the dead, but, for those who are dead IN Christ. Balthasar's imagery is vivid and confronting because he has stripped away the actions of a living active victorious Christ. These are actions which are impossible for a dead man which Christ has to be to stay within His human trajectory. It is hard to accept the death of God passively in torment detached from the Father but by the Spirit stretched to a sliver. It is hard to accept that loved ones who have not believed do not get a second chance but this too is true. Yet Christ's going to the dead on Holy Saturday is just the darkness before the glorious dawn of Easter Sunday. In the fulfilment of His human trajectory of Birth, Life, Death, and Going the Dead He adds Resurrection to those who believe. This is Holy Saturday it is sad and painful, it is difficult to accept because there is no way to see if it is true or not except by faith.
Barth, K (1962) Credo New York : Charles Scribner's Sons
Barth, K (2001) Church Dogmatics, Volume 2 Part 2 The Doctrine of God Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark Ltd.
Connell, M. F. (2002) Attolite portas, "open up, you doors!" liturgical narrative and Christ's descent Worship 76 no 2 Mr 2002, 124-143.
Hunt, A (1998) What are they saying about the trinity? (1st ed.) Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press
Kelly, J.N.D (1967) Early Christian Creeds (2nd ed.) London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd
Moltmann, J (1996) The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology London: SCM Press
Otto, R. E. (1990) Descendit in inferna : a Reformed review of a creedal conundrum. Westminster Theological Journal 52 no 1 Spr 1990, 143-150.
Shakespere, W (2003) Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (12th ed.) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
von Balthasar, H. U. (2005) Mysterium Paschale : The Mystery of Easter (2nd ed.) USA: Ignatius Press