Finding hope in hell

Teri McDowell Ott reflects on Shirley C. Guthrie’s quote, “There is no place – not even hell itself – where God is not present and at work with loving justice and just love.”

“There is no place – not even hell itself – where God is not present and at work with loving justice and just love.” These hopeful words from my heavily highlighted volume of Shirley C. Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine can serve as a theological life raft through hellish suffering. In the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that Jesus “descended into hell,” a phrase debated and omitted by some who don’t see it as necessary. Why does our sinless Savior have to go there? Others, like Calvin, appreciated this phrase because Jesus’ separation from God on the cross represents the ultimate suffering. I appreciate the phrase as well. To me, it emphasizes that no matter what hell we might suffer, Jesus knows, and God is present and at work with loving justice and just love.

About five years ago, I was inspired by Chris Hoke to begin volunteering at the men’s prison 15 miles from my home. After reading Hoke’s book Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders and hearing him speak, I was motivated to pick up the phone, call my local prison, and ask if there was a way I could volunteer. Once I successfully navigated all the Department of Corrections tests – background check, tuberculosis test, drug test, volunteer training – I entered the “underworld” of our society.

What I discovered there transformed me. I learned that Jesus had descended into hell because I met him in men who had been incarcerated for 20, 30, 40 years — men who treated me with kindness, care, and respect, men who were hungry to grow and learn and give back to society. I despaired all the human potential I discovered locked away in an environment that no one would hesitate to describe as hell. After an evening program I’d cry quietly to myself driving home, thinking of DeShawn, Jarek and Chad returning to a 6-by-8-foot cement cell while I returned to my family and the warmth of my comfortable bed.

When I learned that Chris Hoke was a Presbyterian and that churches in the Northwest Coast Presbytery were practicing resurrection through his One Parish One Prisoner program, I eagerly reached out to see if he would write for the Presbyterian Outlook. His article “Resurrection is a movement” on page 12 of this issue is an invitation to follow Christ into the depths of hell in order to set the captives free. (Keep an eye out for our full issue dedicated to prison ministry this fall.)

Prisons aren’t the only examples of hell in this world. This issue also highlights the work of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in response to devastating hurricanes, tornadoes and the suffering of refugees escaping violence. I’ve also been reading Amanda Gorman’s new book of poetry, Call Us What We Carry, and was struck by her pandemic description of us as “the walking dead.” She writes, “Every step we’ve taken / Has required more than we had to give.” This pandemic has affected and isolated all of us. For many, it has been sheer hell.

The suffering and death of Good Friday might feel more raw and real this year. Lots of Christians skip Good Friday, preferring to jump quickly to the joy and celebration of Easter. But the height and hope of resurrection is most fully appreciated by those who know the hellish depths of despair.

The Easter narrative guides us to and through this dark abyss. Each step of the journey to the cross and the tomb lumbering and heavy. We are exhausted and despairing come Holy Saturday. Hell assaults our whole selves — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. And then, like the prisoner incarcerated for 40 years, like the COVID patient released from isolation, like the refugee who finally finds a home free of violence, we are set free on Easter Sunday.

“There is no place – not even hell itself – where God is not present and at work with loving justice and just love.”