Formerly a United Methodist minister, I am now Presbyterian. Methodists don’t use the line “He descended into Hell” as part of the Apostles’ Creed. It was always hidden in the footnotes, a part of the traditional creed, something no longer used. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), people affirm their faith as a community, in response to hearing the Word of God.
One of a few different creeds may be used, but most likely one hears the Apostles’ Creed. A newly baptized person states the creed for the first time, prior to receiving the Eucharist. Whenever Christians say the creed, we reaffirm the profession of faith made in our baptism.
When I began (or re-began) my ministry as a Presbyterian, I discovered that the words, “He descended into Hell” were always used. I stuttered through them at first, not quite remembering, other times not feeling they were appropriate. I finally remembered to say them, and now I have a much deeper understanding of the line on a very personal level.
He descended into Hell. Many people have described “a heightened sense of awareness” since Sept. 11, 2001. We are more observant, more conscious, perhaps more suspicious. My arrival to this sense of awareness came earlier on June 20, 2001. It is an awareness in which an entire family now lives. On June 20, my great-nephews and great niece died in Houston: Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary Yates.
That day, Jesus willingly descended into Hell, gathered each child close to him, and took them home to be with God. He wept as each child died; for their mother, Andrea, whose psychosis had robbed her awareness of right and wrong, and for their father — my nephew Rusty — who was suddenly without a family altogether.
He descended into Hell. Paul writes to the Ephesians in the New Testament, “When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the Earth?” (Ephesians 5:9). The writer of Psalm 139 recognizes that there is no place that God is not present, when he says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to Heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [another word for Hell], you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).
He descended into Hell. As we listen to heart-wrenching testimony in the coming weeks of February and March, Jesus will descend again. To sit among the grieving, the anxious, the wondering, the hurt and angry. He’ll be right there, in the midst of the throes of mental illness, where Hell truly lives.
In other parts of the Apostles’ Creed, there are words about a universal church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, resurrection and everlasting life. The year 2001 brought us an odd communion. The only unforgivable sin of which I’m aware is believing that we don’t have anything to be forgiven for. May the year 2002 bring us to forgiveness, and a resurrected life that we didn’t think possible. May he descend into your hell, and bring you back to God.
Fairy Caroland is a Presbyterian minister living in Savannah, Georgia. She works as a pastoral counselor.